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Feb 3, 2009
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Wine With . . . Indonesian Chicken Soup

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas       

There are many reasons why the rich, flavorful soups from Southeast Asia make wonderful winter fare.  First and foremost: they are absolutely delicious.  But another good thing about these hearty soups is that although they may be served as a first course, we also find them deeply rewarding as the main dish on a wintry evening.  They can be chicken, shrimp or vegetable-based, and they're simple to put together, especially since they may be made a few hours or even a day ahead of time. As a bonus, these soups are extremely nutritious (there's a good reason why chicken soup is thought of as nature's penicillin).  And here's another very important attribute of the soups of Southeast Asia -- they tend to be remarkably wine-friendly.

In searching for the best wine to drink with this dish, we opened twelve different selections, ranging from a Prosecco to a dry rosé. When we tasted each of the wines with the soup, we discovered to our surprise that there wasn't a single incompatible wine among them.  We had expected a greater challenge given the diversity of ingredients (the sweetness of coconut milk, the touch of heat from chilies, the assertive blend of spices), but as it turned out the only real difficulty we faced was in trying to narrow the contenders down to five recommendations.  The wines we chose all shared a touch of sweetness, as we found that bone-dry wines, while certainly enjoyable, were not quite as appealing.  Feeling flush with success at the end of the evening, we decided to open two red wines as well; but we found that neither the Pinot Noir nor the Zinfandel we'd selected was particularly enjoyable with the soup.  The amalgamation of spice and coconut that had been so delicious with white wine made both reds taste bitter, and caused the tannins (even in the Pinot) to seem harsh and aggressive.  Our advice is to stick with whites (or rosés), particularly those that smell and taste fruit-sweet, while you savor a warming bowl of Indonesian Chicken Soup.   

There are as many different recipes for the soups of Southeast Asia as there are cooks.  Curry and paprika are often included in the mix, as are chili paste (such as sambal), bean sprouts, sautéed shallots, fresh mint, and/or hard-boiled egg.  White or brown rice can be substituted for the noodles.  While Kaffir limes are traditional, we usually do without them as they're hard to find in our market.  And when we couldn't get Thai fish sauce we've substituted Worcestershire Sauce-a bit unorthodox perhaps, but it worked.

Makes about 4 main course servings

2 chicken breasts (about 1 pound total) cut in half

4 cups chicken stock

2 stalks fresh lemon grass

4 kaffir lime leaves (optional)

1 or 2 small Thai chilies (depending on level of heat desired)

1 teaspoon each ground coriander, cumin and turmeric

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons finely minced or grated fresh ginger

2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce

1 handful of shitake mushrooms, sliced (optional)

1 14-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

8 ounces glass noodles or dried rice noodles (often called vermicelli)

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice plus 2 limes, quartered

4 scallions, thinly sliced

¼ cup minced cilantro

Place the chicken and stock in a medium pan.  Smash lemon grass stalks (use the handle of a heavy knife) and tie the stalks in a knot; add them to the pot along with the lime leaves (if using).  Simmer, covered, until chicken is tender, about 20 minutes.  Set the chicken breasts aside, discard the lemon grass and lime leaves, and skim any foam off the broth.  When chicken is cool enough to handle, cut it into bite-sized pieces.  

Cut the chilies in half lengthwise and de-seed them.  Add them to the broth along with the spices, garlic, ginger, fish sauce and mushrooms.  Simmer for about 20 minutes.  Add the chicken and simmer the soup, uncovered, for another 15 minutes.  Cook the noodles according to package directions.  Turn the heat off under the soup and add the lime juice.  Taste for seasoning, adding salt if necessary. 

To serve, divide the noodles among four large soup bowls.  Ladle the soup on top and top with the cilantro and scallions.  Serve immediately, passing the quartered limes on a separate plate.

If you have any food and wine pairings that you think are outstanding, or if you've encountered any glaring mismatches, we'd love to hear from you.  Drop us a line at winewith@winereviewonline.com



Approx. Price



Gundlach Bundschu, Sonoma Valley (California) Gewurztraminer 'Rhinefarm Vineyard' 2006




Quite sweet, and lacking a steely backbone of acidity necessary to render it pleasing as an aperitif, this wine's opulent character nonetheless made it a delicious partner for this dish.  If Gewurztraminer and Asian spice often is a winning combination, the reason is not because the wine itself tastes especially spicy, but because it often displays a succulent, sweet floral character.




Mionetto, Prosecco (Italy) Brut NV

(Imported by Mionetto USA)






Lush rather than lively, this Prosecco, though labeled Brut, tastes off-dry - which is exactly what this soup wanted in a partner.  In our experience, almost any soup likes to be paired with bubbly, as the fiz provides an appealing textural contrast.




Raymond, Napa Valley (California) Chardonnay 'Reserve' 2007





A solid and so very satisfactory northern California Chardonnay, this wine displays the requisite overlay of sweet vanilla from oak aging in addition to ripe autumn fruit flavors.  Our soup was in no sense a light dish, and its full body helped it become an appetizing partner.




Trapiche, Valle de Cafyate, Salta (Argentina) Torrontes 'Broquel' 2007

(Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons)




Though a tad light in body, the bright floral character of this wine (especially notable in the bouquet) paired beautifully with the Thai soup.  Like all our recommended partners for this particular dish, it displays enticing sweetness on the palate.




Vina Robles, Paso Robles (California) Viognier 'Huerhuero Vineyard' 2007





Rich, ripe, and juicy, this wine feels and tastes seductive, particularly when paired with a dish, like our Thai soup, that itself has a sweet character.  Much as with the Chardonnay we are recommending, its weight on the palate enhanced the pairing.