Quick Hits: The Unlikely and Heroic Combination of Scotch and Indian Food

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When it comes to Indian restaurants in my area, they are all BYOB. When it comes to a BYOB, I’m not much of a wine guy so usually that means I end up just having water. I’m not a big fan of bringing beer to a restaurant either because it gets warm fast and I’m not the type to lug a cooler in. Readers of this blog know I like my food hot. I once ordered food in a Thai restaurant so spicy (a “4-star” according to their heat guide on the menu) that the chef came out of the kitchen to see who it was sweating and suffering over what they had just cooked. That’s also another reason why I don’t drink wine with Indian food: it can make a bad spice level even worse on the tongue. Again, I want my food spicy and authentic as possible. Indian restaurants vary greatly as to what they consider “hot”. Some are a bit heavy-handed while others barely come across as mild even as I beg the waiter, “Tell them to make it as hot as they can”. In doing so, this limits me to what I am bringing to a BYOB, until the night I had a revelation. It was actually in a Thai restaurant when in walked a party of about six or seven Indian men. They sat down and out came two—count ’em—two bottles of Dewars 12. I could tell by the packaging. Of course, why didn’t I think of that?

With India being under Crown Rule for nearly 300 years, there must be some culture-crossing in terms of alcoholic libations. After all, the gin & tonic (which is known as a British cocktail) came from India, when soldiers needed to add quinine to water to prevent illness, and then livened it up with gin and lime juice. If the G & T ended up in the British Isles, could Scotch make it to India? The answer is yes. A few weeks later I saw an episode of Booze Traveler on the Travel Channel, and the host noted how many different brands of whiskey (and rum) there are in India. It is almost unheard of. Perhaps due to a large Sikh and Hindu population, the amount of alcohol consumed in their country flies under the radar. But you can be sure, they drink. Oh, they drink. That group at the restaurant polished off those two bottles.

That next week, after being inspired, I found myself at my favorite Indian restaurant and had a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red with me. The owner who also waits on us occasionally and who I have known since I was about five years old quickly spotted the bottle of Scotch. I make no exaggeration when I say his eyes lit up. I repeatedly offered it to him, saying I would pour him a glass and he kept saying no, but I could tell he really wanted some. Finally, just as we were about to leave, I persuaded him. He poured a few drops into a glass and added a handful of ice. We clinked glasses and that was that. But he was so happy. Abnormally happy.

Just the other day I was back at the restaurant again. I was talking to the owner’s daughter (who I went to high school with) and it came up in conversation that her family is Sikh. I was actually very surprised, because as far as I know, alcohol is strictly forbidden as is any other mind-altering substance. I don’t know how devout they are and would never ask, but it brings me back to that night with the Scotch. I still try to laugh it off, though I hope the wee dram he had did not turn into a conflict of faith vs. desire. I certainly wouldn’t want to help send anyone to hell over a sip of Johnnie Red!

Anyway, back to the food. Yes, I know Black Label is far superior to Red, but there just happens to be some good flavor profiles that balance out the strong barrel and peat taste of Red with the creamy richness and spiciness of something like chicken tikka massala or any other yogurt-based dish. Put it on the rocks and it does a lot to cool your mouth down during a spicy meal. It’s the complete opposite of red wine in that regard. Either way, those guys that night were on to something. I’ve since brought the Red to Thai restaurants as well, and again, there is just something going on there. Normally, people do not think of whiskey when they see BYOB. Other than wine or beer, occasionally I have seen someone with a bottle of vodka but that is so rare I can count sightings on one hand. Next time you go for Indian food, tote along a bottle of Scotch. I think you will find that it is a match made in heaven, albeit an unexpected one—at least for me. I guess 300 years of British colonialism does have its benefits, though we can be sure Gandhi never shared in those sentiments. Nor did he enjoy Scotch with his native cuisine.

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