I decided to make mulligatawny, because my sister in law recently made it, it sounded good, and my dinnertime repertoire needs expansion. Since the recipe calls for chicken, apple, green pepper, tomato, curry, nutmeg, and clove, among other things, and since I happened to have three open bottles of wine in the refridgerator, I thought here was the perfect chance to experiment with food and wine pairings. Willie Gluckstern in The Wine Avenger suggests investing in a Vacu-vin, a small pump which you can use to pump air out of your half-finished bottles before storing them, so that you may have several open bottles at the ready and all not going stale with oxygen exposure. This way, you have a number of wines to sample with any meal: and so you learn, fairly quickly, what is a nice match with what.
In my fridge I had a bottle of Woodridge Robert Mondavi Chardonnay (California 2006), one of Woodridge Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir (France 2005), and a Bella Sera Pinot Grigio rose (Italy 2006, by way of Gallo). Which of these would "stand up," as the wine writers say, to apple, curry, tomato, green pepper, and nutmeg?
None of them probably would have been an experienced wine drinker's first choice. And yet, none of them was a terrible match, perhaps because no one of the (at first glance, wildly incompatible) flavors of mulligatawny dominate the final dish. It's a simple saute of the vegetables, including the standard onion-carrot-celery medley, apple, and chicken cooked in butter. The spices, chicken broth, and tomato are added, it simmers for an hour, and you serve it with rice. Originally an East Indian dish, its Tamil name, milagutannir, means "pepper water." But the flavors simply blend into something rich, slightly sweet, slightly tangy, a little smoky, and very good.
I sat down to dinner with three wine glasses at my place, and my children gave me startled looks. I sampled all three wines as I ate. The pinot noir seemed to lose any grapey or fruity flavor it had, and to take on a pure butter taste that made it the worst choice of the three. The chardonnay at first had the right richness to match the soup, but it had an alcohol burn afterward that also wasn't a good fit (its alcohol level is 13.5%). The Bella Sera pinot grigio rose -- an unusual wine, a rose made from a white grape -- was pleasantly light, but finally too light and too citrusy.
What would have been the best choice? Perhaps a Riesling, the wine whose sweetness and acidity many food writers credit with making the best match to the most foods. Perhaps no wine at all would have been better, though a wine newbie hates to admit this. Mulligatawny comes from East India and East India is hot. Madeleine Kamman, in her huge book The New Making of a Cook, advises:
"If, for centuries, hot foods have been served in hot climates where no grapevines are grown and if, for centuries, people there have served beer or tea with their hot dishes, is their taste not to be trusted?"
Good point. A Darjeeling, then?
Here is the recipe for mulligatawny, from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook: