Wine With . . . Chinese Spareribs
by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas
Umami is, of course, the fifth taste that humans can perceive. It thus accompanies the more familiar foursome of sweet, bitter, salty, and sour. There’s a reason why the Japanese word “umami” is often translated as “deliciousness,” or “yumminess,” for at least in Western cultures it is something of a mysterious, savory, über-taste that can floods your taste buds with pleasure. In Asian cultures there is even a spiritual aspect associated with umami. But don’t think that umami consists of an ephemeral state of mind. It actually is an identifiable and measurable amino acid (L-glutamate). Certain foods--including anchovies, asparagus, and ripe cheeses--are especially rich in umami.
Asian cuisines tend to be particularly laden with umami, which is one reason why they are so popular around the world. It also helps explain why Chinese, Japanese, and Korean dishes can be a lot of fun for wine lovers. The umami makes them both challenging and rewarding in terms of wine pairing. The challenge lies in the fact that umami can increase the perception of acidity in wine, as well as bitterness and astringency, which makes high-acid and/or very tannic wines suffer when paired with dishes rich in umami. According to Tim Hanni, Master of Wine and umami expert, “umami is the key to unlocking the essentials of well-balanced food and wine combinations.” When blended with sweetness, saltiness and bitterness, umami offers a perfectly balanced combination of taste sensations.
Soy sauce, a principle element in many Asian cuisines, is inherently rich in umami, and is therefore anathema to wine on its own. But in the right context--and with the right wine--it can electrify the senses with its, well, yumminess. That’s why in this recipe, the umami in the soy sauce, the acid of the vinegar, the sweetness of honey, and the voluptuous fattiness of the meat all combine to make a delicious vehicle for pleasurable wine pairing.
1/3 cup tamari or soy sauce
1/3 cup rice or sherry vinegar (or apple cider)
1/3 cup honey
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
¼-1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon finely minced garlic
2 racks pork spareribs
Combine the first six ingredients. Pour the mixture over the ribs and let marinate in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours and up to 24 hours. Reserving the marinating liquid, arrange the ribs in a single layer in a roasting pan. Add about an inch of water to the pan, cover tightly with foil, and roast in a 250° oven for two hours, turning and basting the racks occasionally. Raise the heat to 350°, uncover the pan, and continue roasting another 30-45 minutes, turning the ribs once or twice, until they are nicely browned and fall-off-the-bone tender. Cut each rack in half before serving.
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The last time we made ribs for a “Wine With” column (9/16/08), we recommended red wines with earthy, spicy flavors, commenting that “If there are also hints of coffee and herbal notes in the wine, and/or darker flavors such as tar, chocolate, and leather, well so much the better.” Those were Kansas City-style ribs, coated with a spicy, cayenne-rich rub and cooked slowly outdoors over wood smoke. We were curious to see if the same sort of wines would work best with these oven-baked Chinese ribs. The answer, in a word, is “no.” Perhaps because of the umami-rich soy sauce, wines with that sort of profile seemed bitter and unappealing. By contrast, wines with overt sweetness from super-ripe fruit tasted sumptuous. The contrast between our earlier experience and this one thus served as a helpful reminder that the most critical element when choosing which wine to pair with a particular dish is not the main ingredient but instead the preparation – not what you make, but how you do it.