Thousands of years of spice trading have infused the foods of South Asia and the Arab-influenced world with the aromas of coriander, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, and countless other spices, plus dried fruits and citrus. While the Muslim inhabitants of this region are forbidden to drink any alcoholic beverages, the rest of us can enjoy these flavors with a variety of beers.
Because of the tradition of hospitality in this part of the world, many of the best-known foods of the Middle East and North Africa are smaller dishes suitable for entertaining. The Levantine Dinner menu begins with an assortment of the tempting little dishes called mezze, which also make great party fare. In the same spirit, offer a variety of beers to suit everyone’s taste. This is especially true with the complex spices of an Indian curry or a Moroccan tajine; some guests may prefer a beer that adds its own complexity of flavors, others might want one that simply balances and refreshes.
Pantry Notes: North Africa to India
Spices: Wherever there is a substantial South Asian or Middle Eastern population, there are bound to be stores selling ingredients from home, and these markets are likely to have the best selection and prices in town on a whole range of spices, not just those used in their own local cuisine. Try to buy whole spices whenever possible, especially ones you can easily grind yourself, like peppercorns, cumin, coriander, cardamom, and cloves, not to mention small dried chilies, which are equally useful in East Asian and Latin American cooking. However, you may want to buy some preground spice blends like garam masala and curry powder; the latter may not be very authentic, but at least the version you buy in an Indian market is going to be better, fresher, and cheaper than anything at the supermarket.
Basmati rice: This long-grain rice with especially fine grains and a subtle, nutty aroma is preferred by most South Asians and also makes good Persian-style pilafs. Again, an Indian or Pakistani market will beat any other source of basmati in terms of price, selection, and quality.
Summertime and the Sippin' Is Easy: Pale Lagers
For all the inroads made by the micros, the vast majority of beer sold in North America is still of the same variety: pale, crystal-clear premium lagers like Budweiser, Coors, and Miller, pale imitations of the classic Pilsner style. Light in body, sweetish and soft, effervescent, and easy on the hop bitterness, these beers offer simple thirst-quenching refreshment on a hot day-what the craft-brew set calls lawnmower beer. It's easy to get snobby about these beers, but sometimes they hit the spot better than a more serious beer, especially in hot weather or with very spicy food.
While some craft brewers have reacted to the dominance of the big national lagers by brewing dramatically different styles, others have chosen to compete directly with them on a quality level, brewing serious lagers in the Bohemian mold with all barley malt (no corn, rice, or other adjuncts that the big guys use to cut costs) and noble hops. Lager specialists like Gordon Biersch, Sudwerk, and Thomas Kemper make the best-known examples, while some mainly ale brewers like New Belgium and Lagunitas include good Pilsners in their line. Given the cost of ingredients and the brewing scale, however, these craft-brewed lagers can never really compete with mass-market domestic beers in price; rather, they take some market share away from European imports.
Even among the mass-market lagers, not all brands are the same; my personal favorite, Henry Weinhard's Private Reserve, has more hop flavor and aroma than most. And Samuel Adams Boston Lager (brewed for the West Coast market by Blitz-Weinhard), while hardly a micro-brew and rather dark for a Pilsner, still sets the standard for what large American brewers can do in the Pilsner style if they choose to.
So when the food or the weather is really hot, or you just feel like a lighter and more refreshing brew, don't ignore the paler lagers. Just think quality over quantity, and support your local or regional brewers whenever you can.
Recipes from the Spice Bazaar:
The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook
From The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook, Copyright © 2002 by Jay Harlow. Used by arrangement with Jay Harlow.