When one mentions Chinese cooking wine, they are usually referring to a rice wine callled Shao Xing Hua Diao (To make life easy, I’ll just refer to it as Chinese wine in this post). Shao Xing is a reference to where the wine is traditionally made, much like ‘St. Emilion’. Hua Diao is a reference to a fermenting procedure using certain ingredients, akin to a term like ‘Riesling’. To be entirely accurate, Hua Diao derives from the ornate carvings on the clay containers that the folk would bury their wine in while it fermented, often for several years.
In China, there are two main types of liquor. Distilled liquor is called white liquor (i.e. spirits), while the fermented liquor is know as yellow liquor (i.e.wine). Shao Xing Hua Diao is one of the primary yellow liquors. It is light brown in colour, in a shade that is quite close to whiskey and has a typical alcoholic content of 16%, although I have come across ones that go as high as 19%. They come in bottles of all shapes and sizes as you can see from the three bottles I had lying around the house. Those that come in brown glass are of a better quality and they’re easily available from any kind of store selling Chinese foodstuffs.
As I mentioned at the beginning, Chinese wine is fermented from rice. When rice wine is mentioned, Japanese Sake, another type of wine that is fermented from rice immediately comes to mind. And in fact, it would be quite instructional to include a brief comparison of the two. I have no doubt they started out as similar wines sometime in perhaps the Tang dynasty. The Japanese over their centuries of isolation learned to refine the sake producing process, to arrive at the clear and delicate white liquor that we enjoy today. This has made sake less versatile in the cooking arena, although it is still useful for specific dishes or purposes.
In contrast, Chinese wine was left behind in the evolutionary race. It has retained a more rural and relatively unsophisticated character (to me anyway, I’m sure there are plenty of people who beg to differ). I’d describe Chinese wine more as a sugarless liqueur than an essential part of a bartenders’ inventory, which brings me to why Chinese wine is such a wonderful addition to the kitchen. The traditional alcoholic beverages used in Western cooking, be it wine, port, sherry or cognac are made from fruit, and as a result they all have sweet undertones. They are complimentary ingredients and they add their own distinctiveness to the dish that is being created. Chinese wine on the other hand is a supplementary ingredient, thanks to its earthy and slightly salty flavour. I myself do not know of any other wine that is salty. This allows it to blend into a dish, remaining unidentified by the untrained palate. This makes it unique. Don’t judge it by its raw taste. Its value-added when it comes to cooking is not immediately obvious. Chinese wine has been used in Chinese cooking for ages. Perhaps you have had the fortune of trying a Chinese dish with the word ‘drunken’ in its name, such as drunken chicken or drunken prawns? These contain a sizable amount of Chinese wine.
So how can you use Chinese wine? The closest Western analogue that comes to mind is sherry. Any part where a recipe says add a dash of sherry to a soup or sauce, you can substitute Chinese wine. It can also be used as part of marinades, and is especially useful for freshening up seafood. I have also used it to great effect as a deglaze over pan-fried meat, say like over the bacon in a carbonara sauce. A spot of Chinese wine might also go well with various cold dishes. Anyway, you’re not really going to see many recipes asking you to add Chinese wine. Even in my own posted recipes, I’ll plop in cognac, rum etc. to suit the general populace, even though I might be actually using Chinese wine myself. My point is, experiment with it… and maybe you’ll get to experience that little twinkle of delight when you guests just can’t put their finger on your ‘secret ingredient’.
If you liked this post on Chinese Cooking Wine, you may also be interested in my post on its sweet complimentary, Mirin.