A few years ago I witlessly brought a few beers to Salam, a Middle Eastern storefront on North Kedzie. The host, a man with impeccable manners, politely pretended that city law prevented us from drinking there. “Also,” he added casually, “it’s against our religion.”
Oh. Right. Long story short: water never tasted so good.
Bringing your own bottle is a practice so established in Chicago that a place without a liquor license is commonly assumed to allow it. But on Devon Avenue, where restaurants are as likely to be Muslim-owned as Hindu, the situation is more complicated. Chopal Kabab, for example, doesn’t have a license because the owner follows Islamic dietary precepts forbidding alcohol. Bhabi’s Kitchen doesn’t have a license because it wants customers to bring in alcohol. Sometimes it seems easier just to order a mango lassi.
That’s a shame, because given the heat and complexity of Indian food the perfect match isn’t always sweetened yogurt. To find out what it might be, I took a party of friends to Udupi Palace, a BYO and vegetarian Indian restaurant, along with so many bottles we were booted to a bigger table.
To many palates, Indian food is best with beer–there’s even a specific style for it. In the 18th century, beer shipped from England to expatriates in colonial India kept going bad en route, so brewers upped the alcohol content and the hops, both of which act as a preservative. The result, lively and sharply bitter from the extra hops, was christened IPA, or India pale ale. The style’s now wildly popular with American craft breweries, which hop their beer far more than their European counterparts: if the IPA didn’t already exist, American brewers would have invented it.
The only problem is that intense bitterness actually accentuates heat. If curry can’t be too hot for you, IPAs are ideal, fanning the flames even as they refresh in a brisk and rather fierce way. But the American IPAs we tried–from Goose Island and Michigan’s New Holland Brewing–obliterated the food. An IPA from Samuel Smith was a happier pairing: less hoppy than the Americans, showing a restraint that’s typical of British ales. Its malty sweetness blended well with the addictive chaat papri, crispy bits of fried dough drizzled with yogurt and tamarind chutney.
We brought several types of wine that have been touted as accompaniments for Indian food: something sparkling (for its cleansing bubbles and shadow of sugar), something sweet (to tame the heat), and something red and fruity (for people who want red wine no matter what). Our sparkling, a Champagne-method Blanc de Blanc from Lawrence Mawby, a superb northern Michigan winemaker, was alive and yeasty by itself but more mundane with the chaat and tandoor-roasted eggplant: like a kindergartner sent off to school, it went, but not willingly. Gewurztraminer is often paired with Indian food because its “exotic” notes–lychees and mangoes are often cited–supposedly complement the cuisine. Ours, a 2003 Wurtz-Weinmann Spatlese from Germany, highlighted the coconut flavor in the avial, a vegetable curry, but laid down on top of the other dishes and didn’t get up. We weren’t any more successful with our red, a 2001 blend from southern France called Dominis M. It was delicious alone, but after a bit of spice wines become schizoid: with the curry, Dominis M’s taste was suddenly very similar to that of a cheap jelly doughnut.
We remained happiest with the Samuel Smith IPA and a wheat beer, Kloster Weizen, a Bavarian-style weiss from Wisconsin’s Capital Brewery. Creamy and elegant, the weiss made the chaat and the curries even better, while the carbonation lightened the weight of the food, preparing the palate for still more curry and chaat.
At meal’s end we finally hit upon a match for the American IPAs: dessert. I’ve always found gulab jamun, those fried, syrup-soaked milk balls, cloying to the point of inedibility, but the sweetness was tempered by the bitter edge of the IPAs. In turn, the gulab jamun made the IPAs taste richer and smoother. It was suddenly clear we’d discovered the secret history of beer and Indian food: IPAs were actually invented just to make gulab jamun palatable.