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How to pair whisky with Indian food

Did you know that whisky goes really well with most Indian food? Learn what dram goes with what Indian dish, and read our brief history of whisky in India. Written by Ahmed Ahmed of Dine Birmingham.

Last year we witnessed an explosive trend for pairing food with spirits – gin, vodka, even rum. And with whisky being touted as a major spirit for 2015, Scotch whisky and Indian cuisine are now being matched to delicious effect.

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After a number of experimental pop-ups last year, the unusual pairing is set to be showcased at England’s biggest whisky festival outside of London, Whisky Birmingham 2015.

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Colonial origins

Ever since the first British ships sailed into the Indies, there’s been a steady stream of exotic imports flowing our way. Indeed, many of the foodstuffs we regard as quintessentially British (chutney, Darjeeling tea…) first came to us on this wave of culinary discovery.

And it was a two-way exchange. India Pale Ale, or IPA, was a style of English beer specially created to survive the sea journey to the Subcontinent. And of course gin was adopted and combined with quinine water to create the classic colonial sundowner – the gin & tonic.

But whisky was the export that really took off in India. Scotch was introduced in the nineteenth century, and had instant appeal among the maharajas and upper classes as a luxury tipple from the West. Before long, distilleries were sprouting all over the country, and today India consumes almost as much whisky as the rest of the world put together.

Crucially, someone discovered that the depth and complexity of whisky makes it a perfect match for the rich flavours of Indian cuisine, which is why it’s a common sight at dinner tables across the country.

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A rising trend

Now we Brits are in turn taking a cue from the Indians. Over the past year or so, whisky and Indian cuisine pairing events have popped up all over, from cutting-edge London to the spiritual home of Anglo-Indian cuisine, Birmingham.

Whisky brands are encouraging drinkers to pair their product with spicy curries. Glenfidditch gives this guidance for those unsure about how to match a dram with their dinner:

“Pairing whisky with food usually follows the same rules as wine: stronger, spicier whisky goes well with stronger flavours, while lighter single malts work better with delicate flavours.”

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Diverse cuisine calls for different whiskies

Authentic Indian food varies vastly, reflecting the country’s sprawling land mass and its diversity of climates and cultures. Here’s what whisky I would match with those differing cuisines:

Northern India – meat and wheat

Many of us in Britain are familiar with this style of cooking: rich, meaty mains ranging from seekh kebabs to biryanis and tandoori chicken. These are complemented by rich and full whiskies such as the 12-year old Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban.

Wheat also plays a huge role in this region, with roti and chapattis both mealtime staples, ready to soak up those delicious sauces.

Eastern India – sweets and rice

In eastern states like Assam and West Bengal, rice is cultivated on a huge scale and forms the basis of many meals, including the desserts for which this region is famous for. One example is kheer, a creamy, cardamom-flavoured rice pudding. Try pairing it with The Glenlivet 15-year-old.

Southern India – coconut and shellfish

In India’s wet and vibrant tropical region, much use is made of coconut oil, which imparts a special flavour thanks to its slightly sweet nuttiness. The coasts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu yield crabs and shrimp for delicious seafood dishes.

For this try one of India’s own whiskies – slightly oaky Paul John Classic Select Cask from Goa, which leads with fruit and barley notes, and has an underlying spicy finish.

Western India – vegetables and spice

While India has many vegetarians, Gujarat in the west excels in spicy vegetarian cuisine, including treats such as aloo tikki channa chaat; spiced potato with chickpeas, yoghurt and tamarind. This is a great match for The Glenlivet 12-year-old, with its smooth and soft notes.

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What to pair with common curry choices

Lamb rogan josh

This fiery favourite calls for a robust whisky. Try Caol Ila, a 12-year-old dram with deep herby character and a touch of spice.

Tandoori chicken

Rich-tasting tandoori is best paired with something such as the Bowmore 12-year-old. The whisky’s smoky notes are perfectly suited to the flavours imparted by a traditional charcoal fire.

Tarka dhal

This delicious lentil-based stew is cooked with a special spice mix called tarka, which includes cumin and mustard seeds fried in ghee. As the spices are often mild, try a smooth, sweet whisky such as Glenkichie 12-year-old.

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Where to find whisky and Indian cuisine

Indian fine dining restaurant Itihaas pioneered a whisky-matched Indian menu in October 2014, with exotic couplings including lamb and mint kofta with black sesame seeds, matched with Chivas Regal 18-year-old.

The chefs are set to reprise this with a pop-up at Whisky Birmingham 2015, a festival drawing over 150 different whiskies and brands together on March 7 2015 at a heritage canalside warehouse.

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By Ahmed Ahmed of Dine Birmingham