6 Best Indian Food And Beer Pairings, According To A James Beard Award-Winning Chef

Many an agreement has been struck over a cold pint of beer. There's just something about a well-balanced pint that puts you in a convivial spirit. So, when Atlanta-based Monday Night Brewing Brewmaster Peter Kiley approached James Beard Award-winning chef Meherwan Irani about a potential collaboration, it was a no-brainer. "When he [Peter] first reached out for this idea, it was just like, 'yeah, of course!'" says Irani of the collaboration. "I mean, I was surprised that he was surprised that I said yes!"

The duo recently released Chef Series: Meherwan Irani, a refreshing pint that Kiley lovingly refers to as "a biography in a beer." The wheated rice lager with a touch of turmeric is not only delicious but is the sum of chef Irani's lived experience. Born and raised in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra, India (about 145 miles east of Mumbai), the talented chef immigrated to the U.S. for his MBA in 1990 before finally landing in Asheville, North Carolina, where the concept for his award-winning Indian restaurant Chai Pani was born.

Chef Series: Meherwan Irani is available now at Chai Pani restaurants and Monday Night Brewing taprooms around the Southeast — holiday bonus: proceeds benefit Atlanta's Giving Kitchen charity. But those who aren't planning to head down South anytime soon can still take advantage of the pair's palate-pleasing knowledge. Next time you're craving Indian food, these beer pairings from a James Beard Award-winning chef ensure a mouthwatering experience. 

A brief history of beer and Indian cuisine

While it varies widely from state to state, Indian cuisine is renowned for its complex use of spice. When it comes to pairing it with a beverage, a refreshing beer tends to hit the spot. The subcontinent actually has a rich history of making alcoholic beverages and is even considered one of the world's oldest brewing regions, but it wasn't until around the 18th century that European-style sips took off.

"Beer and Indian food have a long relationship because of the British Raj in India," notes Meherwan Irani. Speaking of the historic prevalence, he says, "Before you eat, you drink either gin or whisky or Scotch, thanks to the British influence. And when you eat, literally, there's only one beverage most Indians would consume, and that was beer." The chef mentions further that light and cool beers, like lager, are often preferred.

Following the end of the British Raj, the soldiers left, but the beer stayed behind, becoming a staple of now-classic Irani cafés. "It's basically this little cantina that served snacks and beer — lots of beer — primarily to Westerners ... hearing those accents mingling, eating Indian snacks out of this little canteen and drinking bottles and bottles of lager is sort of indelibly etched in my memory," says Irani. Today, you're likely to find classic exported lagers like Kingfisher at Indian restaurants from Scotland to San Francisco, but Indian food fan and Brewmaster Peter Kiley has some unique pairings.

Pairing 1: Vada pav with German-style Weiss or Marzen

For the uninitiated, vada pav potato sandwiches are the stuff carbo-load dreams are made of. Basically, a mashed potato croquette sandwiched between two pillow-soft buns, this Mumbai street food is a hearty handheld beloved by vegetarians and carnivores alike. A generous dose of chutney gives the starchy bite the slightly sweet, acidic kick it needs to round out the mouthwatering morsel.

With its starchy profile and pillow-soft texture, Peter Kiley's mind goes immediately to Bavarian beer when considering how to pair this Indian food with beer. "I think of potato, I think of pretzel, I think malty flavors work really well," he says. "I think for vada pav, ideally, I would choose like a Märzen or like a Weiss beer, German-style and not Belgian-style because the yeast is too expressive. But I like the wheat in there."

Of course, the flavor of each vada pav will vary depending on the cook. The type of chutney or other homemade condiment can vary widely as well as the use of spice or chili in the actual potato mixture itself. Typically, the only consistent variable is the texture. The pillowy pav (bun) is reliably soft and melt-in-the-mouth, while the potato (vada) should have a delightfully crisp exterior thanks to a chickpea flour-based batter and a quick dip in hot oil. With these features in mind, it's no surprise that German Oktoberfest beer styles would work equally well with this Indian street food favorite.

Pairing 2: Irani cafe cuisine with Kolsch or English brown ale

Irani cafés are melting pots of culinary tradition. Originally built in the 19th century to cater to British tastes by serving English-style afternoon tea, the eateries transformed post-occupation into casual cantinas where tourists and locals alike could enjoy beer and Indian-inspired pub fare with hints of English and Persian influence — the latter from Zoroastrian Irani immigrants who arrived during the British Raj. The result is a mouthwatering mashup of cultures that chef Meherwan Irani pays homage to at his fast-casual Botiwalla locations.

Among the mouthwatering offerings at Botiwalla are dishes like Inji Road wings, brined with jaggery and coriander, quickly fried, and dusted with an aromatic collection of spices. Irani describes them as "great wings with a little hint of Indian." This balanced flavor profile is emblematic of Irani café cuisine and the perfect reference point for a general beer pairing.

To balance out all of that flavor, Peter Kiley suggests two distinct directions. "I think a Kölsch would be really beautiful. It's expressive like an ale — because it is an ale — but it's also lean enough to drink like a lager." If you want to go this route, read the label to be sure you're drinking authentic Kölsch beer.

Looking for a bit more flavor? "You could go to the complete other side and go with brown ale, but more English brown ale," says Kiley. "Something to where it's got a little bit of maltiness."

Pairing 3: Butter chicken with lager

A staple on many a takeout menu, butter chicken is a North Indian classic. Unlike its British cousin, chicken tikka masala, butter chicken originated in Delhi in the late 1940s and quickly became a favorite for its rich, aromatic flavor profile. It's also a perfect pairing of Indian food and beer.

"You've got lots of cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon on the nose," describes Meherwan Irani. "You've got sweetness from the dish. It's very creamy, it's tangy, there's a little bit of background heat, but it's more aromatic than hot." Nodding in agreement, Peter Kiley continues, "Think about on the palate level ... You experience new flavors upon every bite. And it's never the front palate; it's always the back palate. So with something like that, I think just a lager beer."

When it comes to spice-forward Nothern Indian cuisine, Kiley agrees with the masses, noting how proficiently the cuisine utilizes beer as a cold and refreshing palate cleanser rather than a central focus. As he tells it, "[Beer] is just a background beverage" to the flavors of the cuisine.

Next time you have a hankering for butter chicken, pick up a six-pack of refreshing lager to pair with the meal. Kiley just recommends avoiding light lagers (they're too light to stand up to the bold flavor of butter chicken) and don't be tempted to reach for overly bitter sips like American pilsners. Just grab a well-balanced, well-crafted beer, and you'll be one happy diner.

Pairing 4: Pani puri with American pale ale

One of India's most popular street foods, pani puri is a must-try when looking to expand your culinary horizons. Encompassing a crunchy shell stuffed with a toothsome, well-spiced blend of potato and sprouted lentils and topped with mouthwatering condiments like chutney, pani puri is an addicting texture and flavor explosion that hits just about every palate-pleasing high note. Long story short, eating just one is never an option.

When it comes to downing platefuls of this crowd-pleasing chaat, a cold beer is a necessity. But pairing a sip with such a flavor-packed dish is no easy feat. "That's actually a really difficult one, especially considering how someone would want to present it," says Peter Kiley. "I would probably just say an American pale ale ... It has enough of that malt character without being overpowering."

Chiming in, chef Meherwan Irani adds that an APA has just the right amount of personality for pairing with pani puri, which has an explosive flavor and needs something that can hold its own. In this case, the hoppiness is just enough. "So it's not a palate-cleaner you're looking for; you're looking for something that doesn't get obliterated because your mouth is full of the flavorful chaat masala," says Irani. Next time you reach for a plate of pani puri, try pairing it with a subtle, lightly bitter pale ale for a one-two punch of extra flavor.  

Pairing 5: Uttapam with stout or Saison

More unfamiliar to Western palates, uttapam is like a savory South Indian crepe and a favorite of chef Meherwan Irani who grew up eating them when visiting family. "It's basically almost like injera. It's a spongy rice cake that's savory, and it's got that fermented tang to it, and it's topped, usually, with basic stuff like tomatoes and cilantro and onions and curry leaves."

Although it is not typical Indian restaurant fare in the U.S., Irani is introducing the South Indian staple on his restaurant menus in a bid to make authentic Indian cuisine more accessible to Americans. If you do happen upon uttapam when perusing for takeout options, be sure to order one with a cold brew that's strong enough to cut through the funk.

When it comes to pairing with fermented foods, Peter Kiley believes opposites attract. "I like to go polar opposites because it's fun, it's challenging," he says. "I'd probably go for like a foreign-export stout. Something that would just be kind of different but not overly sweet." 

A stout doesn't necessarily mean Guinness, either. There are dozens of American stouts on the craft beer market that would pair wonderfully with uttapam. If stouts aren't your jam, Kiley has a suggestion for you, too. "I think a Saison with spelt. Maybe a slightly mixed culture. When I say that, I mean a little bit tart, just to lean into the acidity."

Pairing 6: Chaat with American IPA

Falling under the umbrella term "chaat," fried street foods are a cornerstone of Indian cuisine found in pretty much every corner of the subcontinent. While the category has broadened over the years, anything small, crispy, crunchy, and served with a yogurt sauce or chutney for dipping can technically be defined as chaat, according to Irani.

"It tends to be deep fried in the streets because you gotta remember, there's no refrigeration," says Meherwan Irani. "It's hot as hell, you know, and it tends to be vegetarian. It's usually in some sort of batter because some guy's just got a wok of oil, and they're able to just do one thing and kind of make variations on it."

Crispy, fried snacks are ubiquitous the world over for their delightful crunch, which makes this Indian food and beer pairing a refreshingly easy task. Peter Kiley recommends an American-style IPA, though the exact type depends on the kind of chaat you're craving.

"When I think about Northern Indian dishes especially, or ones that possess more heat, I think a really fun pairing is a New England IPA because it has the sweetness, but it also has the bitterness," says Kiley. However, when it comes to more straightforward savory bites like pakoras (vegetable fritters), he recommends a slightly more assertive West Coast IPA to cut through the fattiness of deep-fried foods.

A disclaimer on beer and food pairings

While an alcohol pro like Peter Kiley — whose background spans both winemaking and craft beer creation — loves to offer advice on what spirits to serve with various foods, he notes that these suggestions are just that: suggestions. "I think that being a trusted resource is a great way to operate as a professional, but at the same time, I also want to be very clear that life is hard and time is short and enjoy whatever you want with whatever you want."

This rule is especially important when considering the vast breadth of Indian cuisine. The subcontinent is home to more than 50 unique states, each with its own customs and traditions that influence its food. "If it's Southern, it will be more acidic. If it's Northern, it would be a little more spice-forward," said Kiley. "And oftentimes, these dishes, at least in my experience, can be presented in many different ways. The pairings may not work depending on how the chef wants to present that dish."

When it comes to pairing beer with Indian food specifically, Kiley notes one rule above all others: Avoid liquids that speak louder than the food you're eating. If you're drinking an expressive beverage, try to have it before or after your meal. A drink should elevate the flavor of the food rather than muting it.