From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Chinese Rice Wino

It never fails… We go to Sushi Zushi for lunch, I look at the menu and I see sake.  Or I look at a recipe wondering what to make next week and I see rice wine.  And after poring over all of the details, I see that I really cannot omit that one little ingredient from my meal or my recipe.  Rice wine… such a special ingredient, yet such a strange addition.  I have rows of sake and rice wine on top of the cabinets in the kitchen, yet strangely, I feel no urge to use them up.  But when I do crack open a bottle, the smells that mingle with the taste of the food are wonderful.

The Chinese believe that certain foods will give strength and heat and rice wine chicken is one of those dishes. The rice wine runs the blood that courses through your body, the chicken nourishes the body and the ginger that keeps you warm.

Rice wine, called Geo Niang, is a very popular drink in China. Most of the people from southern China and the warmer provinces know how to prepare it for their own enjoyment and for major festivals.
Rice wine is often served warm, roughly 95-130 degrees.  Warming it allows the aromas of the rice wine to be better appreciated without losing too much of the alcohol. 

Rice wine was first discovered when a selected strain of yeast reacted with the water-soluble starch of glutinous rice to form sugar. After further fermentation, this yielded a very fragrant sweet alcoholic brew. Thereafter, it became known as sweet rice wine.

My Great-Aunt, while she lived in Hong Kong, loved to make rice wine for special occasions; she always shared it with her friends and relatives. I had an opportunity to witness the fermentation process about 28 years ago, and while I don’t remember too much about the details, some it the images of the procedure are burned indelibly in my mind.  She would use large-mouthed crockery jars as the fermentation vessels. After a few days of fermentation, her house would be filled with a very fragrant and delicious aroma. Before World War II, polished glutinous rice was not readily available in Hong Kong, so she would use the unpolished red glutinous rice instead. The resulting brew would have a lovely red color. When the brew settled, the clear effluent was the rice wine and the residue was used in desserts and other cooking (this is called wine lees). To stop the fermentation at the rice wine stage, the jars would need refrigeration in their closed containers, without that, the liquid would eventually turn to rice wine vinegar.

While I was strolling through Tim’s Oriental Market a few months ago, I was greeted by a whiff of the unforgettable rice wine and I felt strangely nostalgic. I walked into the store and pots of the aromatic amber liquids fermenting on a shelf and THEN I remembered what the aroma was from… memories and images from long ago…

While drinking rice wine is part of the culture and daily tradition of Chinese cuisine, it is important to know how certain wines behave with particular foods.  It is important to not consume rice wine with your meal just for the simple sake of pairing a Chinese beverage with Chinese food. 

Flavor matching is one of the biggest principles that needs to be taken into account when drinking with your meal.  Focus on the dominant flavor, say, in the sauce.  If you want to mirror the flavor of the dish, then choose a wine that is somewhat similar which will then add depth to your meal.  Or, if you want to blast the senses, you can pick a contrasting flavor that will enhance and change your perception of the dish.

Pay close attention to the intensity of the dish that you are eating.  A fish course, with its light sauce and delicate flavors will be lost if paired with a bold red wine (a Cabernet Sauvignon), or even a strong white, such as a Chardonnay.
Comparatively speaking, you would not want to enjoy a hearty beef stew paired with a light Gamay, or a white Chenin Blanc… You will end up tasting more stew than wine. 

Match cooking methods to tastes.  A lighter steamed poultry will call for a lighter, more delicate white wine, whereas a roast duck dish will scream to be paired with a bolder Syrah or Merlot.

Use the acidity or sweetness to your benefit.  A Riesling’s dry body will pair well with the greasiness of fried foods, as the bubbles will tend to break the greasiness up.  Sweeter wines, and sparkling wines will cool the heat of spicy foods.

It is critically important to use the right kind of wine to cook with. If you do not have rice wine readily available, it is acceptable to substitute a dry sherry instead of sake, as the sherry has a sweeter flavor.  Try to avoid the standard, generic “cooking wine” that is available on your local supermarket shelves as they have a lower alcohol content and do not have as much flavor as rice wine.

Rice wine is perfect to use when deglazing the wok after cooking your stir fry.  The flavors that the rice wine imparts on the wok as it sizzles away on the bottom of the wok add a new dimension of taste to the dish.  

There is a local brew-master’s joint here in town that will make a custom wine for/with you at your leisure.  Another sells all the supplies necessary to brew your own beer.  I wonder if they offer a course in making your own rice wine… Can I convert the house bathtub into a still and make my own moonshine?

Brewing Chinese Rice Wine

4 cups glutinous rice
1/4 piece Chinese yeast ball
1 teaspoon all purpose flour
1. Soak the rice in hot water for one hour.
2. Drain water and steam the rice over boiling water for twenty-five minutes then rinse with warm water until the rice is cooled to about 95 degrees F.
3. Crush the yeast into a powder; mix it with the flour.
4. Put the rice in a warmed three-quart saucepan. Add yeast mixture and mix by hand. Use your fingers to push the rice against the side of the pan evenly then make a well in the middle. Cover with plastic wrap and then the cover of the pan. Leave this in a warm place or wrap the pan with one or more heavy towels and keep it in a warm place. After four or five days, uncover the mixture, transfer to a jar with a lid, and refrigerate. This can keep about two years.
Note: The clear liquid is the sweet rice wine, the remaining mash, called wine lees can be used as a condiment.

Rice Wine Chicken Stir Fry
  • 30 ounces chicken, wash and cut into pieces
  • 6 ounces ginger, shredded
  • 6 ounces wood ear fungus, finely shredded
  • 6 ounces shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • 1 T garlic, chopped
  • 1-1.5 liter Chinese rice wine
  • 2 T sesame oil
  • 1 tsp salt, or to taste
  • ¼ tsp pepper
  1. Heat the sesame oil in a claypot (or wok) to sauté the ginger, garlic, shiitake mushroom and wood ear fungus until fragrant.
  2. Add the chicken and wine and stew over a medium flame until chicken in tender yet firm, about 20 to 30 minutes in a claypot, longer in other pots.
  3. Season with salt and pepper.

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