To ask a wine lover to give up their libation of choice would be a sin. The first Asian Master of Wine, Jeannie Cho Lee, understands that. Instead, she broadens their repertoire, offering them new partners for wine, from Asia.
After all there is an ecstasy to be had when a good wine meets a good partner. When the aromas of wine are heightened by a dish and the flavors of a culinary concoction enhanced by the ideal partnering of a vintage, then an oenophile cannot ask for a better meal.
Therefore, while purists may beg for the exclusive globalization of indigenous alcoholic beverages alongside hansik, others may opt for a pronged path, one that sees benefits in linking Korean cuisine to an international drink like wine while also promoting Korean drinks like makgeolli at the same time.
The allure of wine within Seoul was evident when Lee matched wines with a five-course hansik dinner for an audience of 62 at the Park Hyatt Seoul in late January -- a Park Hyatt Seoul representative revealed that there was even a waitlist of 20 to 30.
Diners enjoyed the meeting of Chablis with Korean leek pancakes, japchae (clear noodles stir-fried with vegetables) and black beans braised in soy sauce. They savored the partnership between dotori muk (acorn jelly), chili sauce, sole fillet and New Zealand Pinot Noir.
Cucumber kimchi and grilled Australian wagyu beef rib eye met a wine from the Margaux appellation. Blue crab soup and mince tofu stew danced with Shiraz. In the crowning finale, rice cakes embraced Moscato d` Asti. And that was not the end, those who laid down 150,000 won for the ambrosial experience also took home a volume of Lee`s new book "Asian Palate: Savouring Asian Cuisine and Wine" (Asset Publishing and Research Ltd., $98) endowing them with the ability to continue to pair Korean cuisine with wine, whenever they turned to Chapter 7, the chapter on Seoul.
So what are Lee`s guidelines for pairing wine with hansik?
"I really think that the type of wine that goes better with most Korean cuisine ranging from jeongol, jjigae, bulgogi, galbi, including all of those things is really more red than white," Lee said.
"The reds that I would choose are mostly those with very soft tannins, ripe and soft tannins, so examples are Merlot-based wines," she continued before alluding to the French commune touted for its Merlot. "The ones I think have the best texture are the ones from Pomerol in Bordeaux."
For "everyday Korean meals," Lee said she often recommends New World Pinot Noir, a wine that she deems "versatile" in "Asian Palate," calling "slightly chilled New Zealand Pinot Noir" a "dependable" companion to typical Korean fare.
Why not Old World Pinot Noir, more specifically, why not those from Burgundy -- from whence the famed wine of Romanee-Conti hails?
"The reason I don`t mention Burgundy red and I could is that in general Korean food is very intense in flavor, high in spices and lots of seasonings. And usually you need enough of a fruit character to stand up to it," Lee explained, a theory in keeping with her calling for "fruity Pinot Noir from cool climates" in her new book.
"I think if you do have a Burgundy red very often it`s expensive and you need to pick and choose ... To be safe I guide people toward New World Pinot Noir, New Zealand, Australia, California."
For Pinot Noir, Lee recommends yookhae (spicy raw marinated beef) or fried or spicy cuttlefish rings in her new book. In "Asian Palate," she also pairs Cabernet Sauvignon with galbijjim (braised short ribs), Merlot with bulgogi, Sangiovese with namul (seasoned vegetables), Tempranillo with japchae (stir-fried clear noodles), Nebbiolo with jehyuk bossam (steamed pork belly) and Sauvignon Blanc with nakji bokkeum (spicy stir-fried octopus).
"Galbi, bulgogi, sirloin, meat intestines, I mean those are wonderful with wine. It calls and screams for wine, I think," she said. "Even if you add everything, ssam, ssam jang, garlic, you put it all in. It`s flavorful but there are lots of strong wines like a fruity Merlot or a very fruity Pinot Noir that can actually stand up to those elements and even add an additional enjoyment value."
Riesling, a customary go-to for Asian cuisine, was not Lee`s top pick for whites to pair with hansik.
"If I were to pick a white, it would definitely be a white with more body and middle than a Riesling," she said. "A Riesling is too thin."
"I find that a wine with greater body but just as much refreshment character, good acidity, but with depth and greater structure is a Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend, either from Australia or from Bordeaux."
"What this blend has, which I think is a wonderful combination," Lee related with barely restrained enthusiasm. "Is the acidity and the refreshing character from Sauvignon Blanc, but it`s not grassy. It`s not herbaceous ... You have the Semillon to round it out, to give it fat."
"A well-made combination of those two blends, I think, works very, very well because Korean food has the intensity," she continued. "You need character. You need personality. But it can`t be really overt and strong or it will fight with the food or it changes the integrity, or the essence of the flavors that you`re trying to lift."
Integrity is something that Lee seems to value greatly. For the Park Hyatt Seoul dinner and for her "tour around Asia" she revealed that she talked with local chefs, telling them, "Don`t change the flavor for the wine."
Her desire to maintain integrity is not restricted to the cuisine itself, it extends to culinary cultures as well.
"A typical family meal at home often consists of a bowl of rice with at least six to 10 different dishes, including the spicy, garlic-laden fermented cabbage, kimchi," Lee referred to the customary Asian meal in "Asian Palate."
As a solution, Lee suggests pairing wine with "your central, core dish" if there will only be one wine or "to look at the strongest flavors that surface" and to "try to make sure that wines can at least meet and pair up with the strongest flavors in all the range of dishes that you`re served."
Lee`s tips act as a sort of blueprint for the pairing of wine with Korean or other Asian meals, enabling oenophiles with a desire to dip into their banchan and wine all at once a method to their means.
They can also help domestic and overseas restaurateurs of hansik establishments who want to integrate both wine and traditional beverages into their menu a way of doing so without compromising the cultural authenticity of the cuisine that they serve.
Most importantly, they open up the forum for further exploration of the relationship between Asian food and wine by other wine experts in what Lee calls a "realm that was relatively unexplored."
"Asian Palate: Savouring Asian Cuisine and Wine" is available at Park Hyatt Seoul for 115,000 won.
By Jean Oh