In our house, we are celebration opportunists. Holiday hedonists, so to speak. Festivity freeloaders. Promiscuous party-makers. Jamboree joiners. Etc.
In other words, we honor and participate in just about every traditional fanfaronade that pops up on the calendar. No matter what religious or cultural affiliations are ascribed to it, as long as there is food and drink associated with it, we like to be a part of the action. We eat rice and beans during Mardi Gras, for instance (and pancakes for dinner on Shrove Tuesday), as well as corned beef and cabbage for St. Patty’s Day, tacos on Cinco de Mayo, baguettes on Bastille Day, bratwurst and sauerkraut for Oktoberfest, and so on.
Chinese New Year, which began today, is no exception. And because we are kitchen-table enthusiasts, not anthropologists, we don’t maintain particularly exacting standards. We’re pretenders, after all, so adhering to authenticity would seem, well, unseemly: rather, we simply act like tourists and order take-out from the local restaurant. However, we do take an interest in the rituals of the Spring Festival, as it is also called. For instance, we like to discuss the significance of the current cycle of the zodiac, and which of the 12 animal signs each of us falls under and how compatible we are to each other. (In our little menagerie we have, in descending order, a snake, a rooster, a pig, a tiger, and a horse.) And over the past decade or so, each of my three kids has taken a turn instructing the rest of us on what she or he has learned about the holiday in school — sayings and greetings, stories, poems, and the like.
What makes this fete slightly trickier to pull off than some others (and I’m not even counting sewing the dragon costume and the lion dance I do) is the fact that Chinese food can be hard to pair with good drink. There is often a wide range of flavors among the dishes, and they don’t always complement each other. At least not at our table: we have figured out what everybody likes and we usually order the same dishes, to keep the peace among the differing palates and temperaments in the house. Our list of usuals includes moo shu vegetable, orange chicken, Szechuan beef, and pork with spicy black bean sauce, along with pork-fried rice, some Spring rolls, and an order of steamed dumplings (for good luck). Not exactly feng-shui perfection, but certainly a tasty combination.
So, what do you pour into a glass that will not compete with or foil the already dueling flavors? The natural (and safe) choice is one of the popular beers brewed in China and Asia, like Tsingtao or Kirin. These beers, generally pilsners, are certainly more satisfying than a glass of water but have relatively little flavor, compared with the food, and so tend to play a supporting role. And that’s OK. They work in a pinch and are vastly better than red wine, which always wants to lead aggressively in the tango of tastes and has a single-minded, showy, fruity demeanor — it’s made from grapes, remember — or white wine, which unless you are eating something citrusy, like lemon chicken, can literally sour your taste buds. The other advantage of beer over wine is the carbonation: it acts as a palate cleanser, literally lifting away the fatty oils, carbs, and heavy flavors, while readying your tongue with scrubbing bubbles in time for the next bite. You can’t get that kind of service from a Cabernet, no matter the pedigree.
But this time around, because it is a New Year’s celebration, I want something more distinctive and special and, well, celebratory. So I consulted the teachings of the Master — the brewmaster, that is. I pulled out my copy of The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food, by Garrett Oliver, which is the Tao Te Ching of beer-food handbooks. Not only does Oliver’s tome contain lots of great beer facts and lore, along with a comprehensive history and description of all the major styles of beers and who brews them, etc., but (and this is the key ingredient, the third eye of enlightenment, if you will) the book also exactingly and deliciously suggests the proper foods to pair with them.
Surprisingly, Oliver, who is brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery, recommends serving German beer with Chinese food — Bavarian weissbier, or wheat beer, in particular: “The volcanic carbonation will break up those cornstarch-based sauces and let you really taste the food, while the malt sweetness marries into the dish.” Since he hasn’t steered me wrong yet — as Confucius says, “when internal examination discovers nothing wrong, what is there to fear? It’s just beer” (I’m paraphrasing here) — I decided to give it a try. So I dropped by my favorite rathskeller, said “kung hei fat choy!” to my favorite salesperson, who (after giving me a confused look) helped me pick out a half-dozen or so Bavarian beers to try. He also suggested a few domestics and one surprising German-style weizen brewed by an Asian neighbor.
Then I gathered the family together, spread out a few dishes on the table, curiously cracked open each of the bottles, like fortune cookies, and had a little taste-test while we ate our way into the Chinese New Year.
Schneider Weisse, G. Schneider & Sohn. The first thing I noticed about this unusual beer was an earthy, ruddy color that grew intriguingly cloudy as it filled the glass. The carbonation was also a bit more athletic than expected, but its complex, fruity bouquet told me right away that, “ja!” it was a wheat beer. The style’s trademark sweet, caramelized malt flavor and an almost bubble-gum-like tanginess emerged when mixed with the orange chicken and the pork-fried rice. And its tart, slightly acidic finish helped tame the Szechuan beef and other spicy foods.
Erdinger Hefe-weizen, Erdinger Weissbrau. We found that this more traditional, popular wheat beer (the label says “hefe-weizen,” which is another term for weissbier), with its pale orange glow and billowy head, delivered delicate flavors that paired well with the lighter foods but were almost too mild for the rest. For instance, the muted malt flavors and hints of fruit, especially apple, though quite refreshing and enhancing to the pork-fried rice and orange chicken, were easily overwhelmed by the stronger flavors.
Ayinger Ur-Weisse, Ayinger Brauerei Inselkammer. With “ur” in the name, meaning “original,” it’s hard to deny this was the best all-around beer in the bunch. It’s a dunkel, or dark beer, with an amber hue and sweet, toffee texture that is matched by clove and fruity (banana?) undertones. As such it was especially tasty with both pork dishes and was the perfect counterpart for anything spicy — it embraced the biting raciness, soothed it with malty caramel goodness, and washed it away in a light foam.
Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse, Spaten-Franziskaner-Brau. Also a dunkel, this beer showed less malty sweetness upfront, compared with the Ayinger. It was milder, too, with a slightly more bitter, drier finish. But with enjoyably subtle caramelized sugar and coffee notes, it was an agreeable match for the lighter fare and melded especially well with the smoky mushrooms in the moo shu vegetable.
Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, Brauerei Heller-Trum. Although the label reads “marzen,” your nose wouldn’t know that this rauchbier, or smoked beer, was cousin to an Oktoberfest. In fact, from the moment I popped the cap, an overwhelming aroma of burning embers puffed out of the bottle like a chimney. But once the smokiness subsided a bit, by the second swig or so, the familiar, sweet Bavarian maltiness made its way to the surface. And the more I sipped, the more I liked this mellow little tinder-beer, especially in concert with the smoky flavors of the black bean and duck sauces, and it coaxed a faint suggestion of a wood-fired grill out of the chunks of pork in the rice. I bet it would be even juicier with barbecue spareribs.
Smoked Porter, Stone Brewing Co. Unlike its rauchbier counterpart, this domestic variant showed greater balance between the malty and smoky flavors, and it was drier and breadier, too, as a porter should be. So it seemed to pair well with most of the menu items, at first. However, it displayed a silky, chocolate-like roastiness that was more delicate than the muscular, malty sweetness of the marzen and allowed it to be overpowered by the high-kicking spices and pushy starches. I saved some for dessert and sipped it later, with a fortune cookie.
Golden Monkey, Victory Brewing Co. When I want a flavorful American beer that will act as an ambassador and improve relations with my Chinese food, this is my go-to brew. Technically a Belgian-style tripel, the natural orange flavors and spicy overtones of this bottle-conditioned pale beer made it seem right at home with the Germans. And though it mixed well with similarly flavored dishes, like orange chicken or the sweet pork-fried rice, this delightfully hoppy beer, with its full body, lively carbonation, and dry finish, also mingled nimbly with the other dishes, too.
Hitachino Nest Weizen, Kiuchi Brewery. I have to admit that it was partly the cutesy cartoon owl on the label that caught my attention. I mean, come on, who doesn’t like a little anime now and then? I also thought that, because it was brewed in Japan, there might be a neighborliness to the brew that suited Asian cuisine. Instead, this beer quickly proved as annoying as an episode of Pokemon — overly sweet, with a winy, sourly cloying aftertaste. In fact, other than battling valiantly with the very spicy dishes, this weizen went down like a bottle of Sweetarts.
According to custom, the Chinese people believe they should enter a new year by dropping the old one “into the silent limbo of the past” by cleaning house, painting doors, buying new clothes, or even getting a new haircut. That seems like a fitting way to put the troubles of the last 12 months behind us, especially when you consider that we have just begun the Year of the Rooster, a period supposedly characterized by fresh challenges requiring quick wit and practical solutions.
So here’s my advice to you: clean your kitchen, invite friends and family over, order some Chinese take-out (be sure to over-tip the delivery person), pop open a bottle of weissbier, and shout “auf wiedersehen 2016!”
As always, tell us what you think. Do you have any words of wisdom for the rest of us? Are there books, beers or bands that inspire you during this celebratory time of year? Let us know by leaving a comment below.