The Indian restaurant can be a jungle for the discerning drinker to navigate. The pungent spiciness and heat of the food sends most wines running for cover, so beer reigns supreme as the drink of choice for many. However, with its formidable character and own spicy notes, whisky is also well placed to negotiate the spice-laden menu.
Britain’s love of Indian food is a legacy from the days of the Raj, and this colonial cultural exchange also left the Indians with a thirst for Scotch whisky. India represents the biggest whisky market in the world, so it is logical that a spirit that appeals to Indian palates can also complement the complex flavours and textures of the native food.
As a result you’ll find that many of London’s high-end Indian eateries, such as The Cinnamon Club, Moti Mahal and Benares, list a comprehensive whisky selection. Jitin Joshi, executive chef at Benares and a big whisky fan, frequently experiments with whisky and food pairings and believes it’s the spice element that works particularly well. ‘The organic compounds in the spices are alcohol soluble so the whisky accentuates them, making your palate more open to their flavours,’ he explains.
Indian food is a melting pot of culinary influences and it is the style from northern India, where dishes are traditionally cooked in a charcoal-fired tandoor oven, that has a particular affinity with whisky. These clay ovens are sealed to infuse the food inside with smoky flavours that draw a parallel with the peaty notes in island malts such as Lagavulin and Ardbeg. The smoke absorbed by the meat is accentuated by the whisky, so they combine harmoniously.
A recent example of a very successful pairing is a Gelewati clove-smoked lamb-kebab pattie wrapped in filo pastry, served with Lagavulin 16 year old. The whisky’s viscous mouthfeel also copes well with the contrasting textures of soft-meat pattie and crisp filo shell.
Tandoori cooking is also the specialism of Moti Mahal in Covent Garden, and here head chef Anirudh Arora looks to the dominant ingredients in each dish, as well as the smoky cooking style, to find successful whisky matches.
For example, tandoori prawns go well with the seemingly salty character of a maritime malt, whereas the much bolder ingredients in southern Indian dishes – such as lamb chops with curry leaf and mango – need an equally bold whisky.
However, Arora’s most ingenious way of incorporating whisky into a meal is in his smoked-lime sorbet palate cleanser, drizzled with frozen Caol Ila. The sorbet gives the whisky more sweetness, while its characteristic smokiness becomes more intense yet mellow too. A welcome whisky refresher to banish the heat!