Right wine right way to push Vietnamese food

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Betty Pallard tasted wine for the first time when she was 13.

Her family had urged her to taste something "delicious" as they celebrated the birthday of her grandfather, a veteran diplomat.

It was delicious, as the adults had said. She has never been able to forget its taste, and her interest in wine, awakened then, has never waned.

More than two decades later, Pallard, 36, is armed with a lot of knowledge about wines, and now plans to deploy it for a new cause promoting Vietnamese cuisine.

Pallard is well positioned for this unusual undertaking, having moved to Vietnam three years ago and taken Vietnamese nationality by virtue of being born to a Vietnamese mother.

Given the custom in Western countries to serve wine during parties and even regular meals, not having wines as accompaniment to Vietnamese food when introducing it in foreign countries will not get it very far, she feels.

However, she said that the awareness of combinations between food and wines is still underdeveloped in Vietnam.

Basically, Vietnamese people know that white wine goes with seafood and red wine should be used with meat, said Pallard, who was born to a Frenchman and a descendant of Minh Mang, the second emperor of Vietnam's last dynasty Nguyen (1802-1945).

But, when wines and food get more "complex," they are lost in coming up with good combinations, she said.

For instance, fish obviously goes with white wines, but it is a different story for braised fish.

Pallard not only knows wines, she also knows Vietnamese food well, and can tell the differences between local varieties of mam (fermented food), banh cuon (rolled cake) and pho.

She said it is a mistake that when Vietnamese people host dinners for foreign guests or business partners, they choose expensive wines.

In fact, it can work against the hosts, she said, because such selections may lead their partners into thinking that they are willing to accept high prices in business transactions.

"It is not necessary to choose the most expensive wine, but it is important to choose those that go well with the foods. That way, our partners will consider us smart and selective," she said.

On the other hand, due to the poor knowledge of wine-food combinations when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine, several wine distributors face difficulties when introducing their products in Vietnam, Pallard said.

She noted that many distributors offer guests cheese to go with wines, but some Vietnamese customers found it too fatty. Pallard says cheese is not something that Vietnamese typically like, so it is not effective to teach them about wines by combining them with cheese.

Pallard's contentions of this frequent mismatching are backed by Vu The Long, general secretary of the Food Association.

He said that at most tasting ceremonies he has attended, organizers offer guests wines along with ham and sausages. Many guests taste the wine but do not touch the food because they are not familiar with Western foods, he said.

Last year, Pallard, along with a sommelier, was assigned to choose wines for a four-day Southeast Asian conference on construction glass.

She and her partner studied the ways each dish on the menu was cooked in order to choose suitable wines. In the end, most of the guests were satisfied with the wines, even though each bottle cost less than VND500,000 (US$24).

"The food went well with wines; the party atmosphere was comfortable; and together they made it a success," Pallard said.

But what made her happiest about the conference's party, she said, was that it proved that wines could actually go well with Vietnamese food.

It gave her the confidence to start a project this year to teach people how to combine wines with Vietnamese food, said Pallard, who now works as a project director for the Alpine Company, a venture capital firm, in Hanoi.

The wine education project will be carried out in cooperation with an expert who has tasted wines across Europe for many years, Pallard said.

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