Every family has its own way of celebrating Christmas. Some deck their halls with wreaths and lights, some pile presents under the tree, and some go to the movies and order Chinese food. If the latter is part of your plans, you might as well also have a beer. (Especially if your family—like mine—has a way of consistently choosing the year's most awful movie to watch together on this annual outing.)
I can't help you choose a movie, but I can recommend this: please back away from the Tsing Tao.
Just because a certain beer is often sold in Chinese restaurants doesn't mean it's actually the right pairing for Chinese food. Our goal was to find beers that truly complemented the flavors of each dish and were complemented by those dishes in return. We tried a number of excellent beers in search of the perfect matches for our favorite spicy dishes, as well as a few classics of the Americanized Chinese variety.
While we couldn't cover the whole menu, we hope this guide will come in handy for you as a jumping-off point. And don't worry, these suggestions will stay good long after the last Christmas cookies have been devoured.
Getting Started: What to Drink with Appetizers
Ordering scallion pancakes? Pair them with Ballast Point's Calico Amber Ale. This delicious beer has toasty caramel flavors that accent the richness and crispy edges of the pancakes. This beer is just hoppy enough to refresh the palate and fuel your hunger without exhausting your taste buds.
If you order Sichuan-style wontons in spicy chili oil, we recommend The Bruery's tasty Saison Rue. This well integrated beer has a hint of rye, honey, pine nuts. The flavor reminded our tasters of peach tea and hay. It has just a little fruity bitterness, but isn't noticeably hoppy, which helps it pair well with the wontons. The Saison Rue picks up the nutty and sesame flavors in the sauce, and its light sweetness is a perfect match for the pork filling. Eggplant in Garlic Sauce is also a great match for this beer.
Fried pork dumplings are delicious on their own, but they're even better with a glass of the Saison du Pelican from Pelican Pub & Brewery. The beer emphasizes the gingery flavors in the dumpling filling, and has nice hints of sage, caramel, and nutmeg.
With steamed shrimp dumplings, you need a mellow beer that won't overpower the delicate shrimp filling. Brooklyn Brewery's Local 1 is buttery and fresh tasting, with delicate yeast and floral flavors that are nice with the sweet shrimp.
Whether they're mild or with a bit of spice, cold sesame noodles are great with the slightly smokey Dunkel from Atwater Block Brewery in Michigan. This beer is earthy and nutty, resonating perfectly with the roasted sesame paste in the noodles. This beer is also a slam dunk with sweet and spicy Guizhou chicken: the floral, fruity flavor of Sichuan peppercorns is perfectly echoed in the beer.
Like It Spicy? Beers for Hot Dishes
One of our favorite dishes at Grand Sichuan is Chong Qing dry and spicy chicken. It's a big plate of crispy diced chicken tossed with toasted red chilies, ginger, scallions, and Sichuan peppercorn. We were really impressed by how well Sebago Brewing Company's Boathouse Brown Ale brings out the dry nutty flavors and smoky notes in the chicken. The mellow brown ale is nice foil for the dish's heat, and the subtle cocoa-powder and hazelnut notes pair well with the chicken's gingery flavors.
We're big fans of spicy, silky Ma Po Tofu served with minced pork and chili oil, and we like it even better with a Lagunitas Pils. This golden pilsner has a bit more rich malt and hoppy flavor than many others of this style. It calms down the spices in the tofu while adding some nice fresh bready flavors of its own.
We order Gui Zhou chicken whenever we're in the mood for something spicy but a little sweet; it's not as aggressive as the Chong Qing, and has nice little bits of bamboo shoots throughout the dish. Affligem Blond from Belgium is an excellent match—its floral quality complements the ginger and Sichuan peppercorns in the dish, and the citrusy, herbal aspects of the beer refresh the palate while echoing the dish's tangy flavors.
Great Beer Pairings for Dishes on the Mild Side
I have a weakness for tea-smoked duck, and the limited-release Monk's Blood from 21st Amendment Brewery is an incredible match for it. This lush dark Belgian-style ale pours ruby-brown and has flavors of concord grapes, prunes, and chocolate. It's awesome with hoisin sauce and really compliments the gaminess and richness of the duck, bringing out the smoky tea flavor and toasted notes in the crispy skin. If you are lucky enough to have a stash of this beer, I highly recommend calling for roast duck delivery now.
If pork fried rice is on the menu, pair it with an amber ale like Fat Tire from New Belgium in Colorado. This mild beer has soft caramel notes that are echoed in the fried rice. Both the dish and the beer have a nuttiness that brings them together.
Beef Chow Fun is pure comfort food: greasy and savory, rich and mild. It's delicious with a glass of Ridgeline Amber from Great Divide. The sesame oil in the noodles melds seamlessly with the earthy mushroom and caramel flavors in the beer.
A fabulous match for good old General Tso's Chicken is the Blanche from Weyerbacher in Pennsylvania. This Belgian wit style beer has a peachy flavor and almost no bitterness. It resonates and brightens up the sweet chicken, and also worked with bitter Chinese broccoli, which was a hard dish to pair.
If you order Kung Pao chicken, we encourage you to try it with Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Urbock, a rich German beer made with smoked malt. It tastes like bacon and peanuts, and matches beautifully with the earthy and nutty flavors in the Kung Pao. While we'd probably be overwhelmed by this beer on its own, it brings the dish to a higher level.
Disclosure: The Saison Rue, Fat Tire, Saison du Pelican, and Boathouse Brown were provided by the breweries as review samples.
About the author: Maggie Hoffman and her team of tasters are always looking for their new favorite beers. Maggie also writes about cooking for Pithy and Cleaver.