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A night of whisky and curry

Published:  04 November, 2010

James Lawrence attends a whisky and curry matching at Quilon in London



So far, I really like it. Admittedly, I have only just put my foot through the door, but I have already received a warm welcome from the staff, and the enticing smells. I have been invited to the Quilon, one of a growing number of London's Michelin starred Indian restaurants to take part in a food and whisky matching evening.

Seems like an odd pairing I know. I was slightly sceptical about attending this event, both because I normally only associate whisky with the last frontier leading onto a massive hangover and because of some of the negative press surrounding the restaurant. Terry Durack from the Independent described it as, 'just plain annoying', with lacklustre décor and mixed food to boot. At first glance the room does look a bit bland, with jungle murals on the walls looking strangely out of place, like the Terminator working for the Samaritans. Tamarind this is not!

But then, I'm here to overcome my prejudices about whisky and food, décor is last on my list of concerns. The evening is led by writer Dominic Roskrow, editor of Whiskeria, self confessed whisky obsessive and author of The World's Best Whiskies. I make friends immediately by admitting whisky is the last thing I would match with food, Indian or otherwise and challenge him to change my mind. He likes a challenge, he admits.

With good humour, Dominic offers a tutored tasting of 4 whiskies, explaining their origins and giving food matching tips. Amrut Double Cask and Henry McKenna Bourbon find favour with some guests but not me. The alcohol sears your throat,  the last drink I'd serve with food. I find no flavour just intense heat. It overwhelms rather than compliments.

Dominic suggests adding water which I do and yes, it does make the whisky more palatable. It must be one of the few drinks in the world where water actually improves the texture. Imagine saying "Waiter, please water down the Lafite, my wife finds it a bit much."

The last two whiskies, Karuizawa 1982 Whisky Exchange and Glenkeir Macallan 17 year Old Cask Strength I do like. The Karuizawa is rich and smooth with intense sweet vanilla and the alcohol seems less intense. The Glenkeir is more fierce, but still manageable with an intense, heady character of spice and peat. The Karuizawa is the clear favourite with its round, smooth texture and rich sweet palate. But I can still only manage a bit of it.

Unsurprisingly, I plump for the Karuizawa when the food is served after the tasting. At this point, Traminer Aromatico from Alto Adige and Waipara Pinot Noir are offered. I don't resist but stick to my intention of trying whisky with the food, all beautifully presented and flavoured.

South Indian Cuisine, according to Quilon head Chef Sriram Aylur, is as far removed from the stereotype of Indian food as can be. No heavy sauces and fiery heat here. His cooking is refined, modern style Indian cuisine with no butter and cream used in the sauces. The food is light, aromatic (but not overly spiced) and brilliantly executed, the Curry Leaf and Lentil Crusted Fish a highlight from the starters.

Everyone loved the Manglorean Chicken, cooked in coconut with the spices perfectly judged, it was some of the finest Indian cooking I had sampled in a long time. The rice was lemon scented, light and fluffy, the Malabar Paratha breads dangerously moorish. The waiter got plenty of exercise returning to the table for repeat orders.

God forbid, the food could even be described as healthy!

The whisky did actually work quite well with main courses; the rich, vanilla and buttery flavours matching the sauce and spice well. However, I must admit that pretty soon you are left wanting a beer, or even better a glass of wine. Whisky and food, even Indian food, just doesn't seem right. Too much alcohol and heaviness to make it truly enjoyable, or make you want more than a few sips. So on that score, I don't think we should be encouraging diners to plump for single Malt over an Indian Chenin Blanc.

After dinner, Sriram shares his perspectives on Indian wine culture and whether his nation's palate will embrace wine.

"It is slowly catching up and people are increasingly requesting Indian wine in restaurants, both here and in India", he says.

"The key is that for women to consume a bottle of wine after work in the cities is no longer a taboo; they are an important wine consumer in India. Wine is often the only drink of choice at weddings and celebrations for the middle and upper classes in Mumbai for example", he adds.

Interestingly, he believes that Riesling and Pinot Noir are the best wine accompaniments for his cooking, as they are light and aromatic.

The biggest surprise is that, according to Sriram, people are increasingly requesting whisky matching recommendations at his restaurant, in addition to wine. He often recommends a Japanese Single Malt with their chicken curry instead of Sauvignon Blanc. Quilon's whisky list is certainly long and impressive.

Ultimately, a fun and eye opening event. I am yet to be convinced that whisky works with food, but certainly a movement is growing in Indian and perhaps all restaurants across the capital. As for the Quilon, well,  fair enough we could not describe it as the most 'exciting' of restaurants with a multi million pound interior, but when the food is as good as this, who cares?