Cooking With Chinese Rice Wines

This alcoholic beverage is also an important ingredient in Chinese dishes

Pickled duck in anchang ancient town,Shaoxing
xia yuan / Getty Images

Chinese rice wine is consumed as an alcoholic beverage and is as used as an ingredient in Asian dishes. It is made from fermenting and distilling rice, where the rice starch is converted to sugars. The alcohol content is somewhere between 18 and 25 percent, making it a strong drink compared to beer (averaging 5 percent) and wine (coming in around 12 percent). There are several types of rice wines (nearly 2 dozen), and in parts of South, Southeast, and East Asia they are mainly enjoyed as a beverage. But there are two rice wines in particular that are very important in Chinese and Taiwanese cooking: Mijiu rice wine and Shaoxing rice wine.

Mijiu Rice Wine

Mijiu (米酒) is a rice wine made from the fermentation of sticky or glutinous rice and is considered a form of huangjiu, a Chinese alcoholic beverage that is not distilled. Its color should be as clear as water and the taste a little spicy. Some rice wines have a little sweetness to them but it really depends on how they are made. Most of the cooking rice wines sold in Chinese supermarkets don’t have a sweet flavor and are a lower quality, containing salt.

Both Chinese and Taiwanese people use Mijiu rice wine almost on a daily basis in vegetable stir-fries, stews, soups, and desserts. Stir-fry vegetables usually contain green vegetables like cabbage, spring greens, and spinach. Some people like to add a couple drops of rice wine to enhance not only the flavor of the vegetable but also give the dish a special fragrance.

When cooking braised pork belly known as Hongshao rou (紅燒肉), huge amounts of Mijiu rice wine are often used. Some chefs, in fact, add no water to their stews or slow-cooked meats, only rice wine. Mijiu rice wine is also a very important ingredient in Taiwanese ginger and sesame chicken soup (麻油雞). Sometimes cooks won’t even use a single drop of water but, instead, add a large amount of rice wine to cook this dish. Some Chinese and Taiwanese chefs will add rice wine to the soup bowl before they serve the soup.

And Mijiu is not only used for savory recipes but sweet dishes as well. A popular Taiwanese dessert is sweet rice soup with dried longan (a juicy fruit related to the lychee). Rice wine is poured into a bowl and then the dessert is added; the wine enhances the flavor and brings a special aroma to the soup. Rice wine also is used in sweet tangyuan soup for the same reason.

Shaoxing Rice Wine

Shaoxing rice wine (紹興酒), also known as shaohing, shaoshing, or shaoxing wine, is another type of fermented rice wine. It originates from Shaoxing, Zhejiang province. Shaoxing rice wine is brown in color and the flavor is much stronger, but sweeter, than Mijiu rice wine.

Because of Shaoxing's strong taste, it's not recommended for everyday cooking since it will mask the flavor of the other ingredients. It does, however, go well with drunken chicken, drunken prawns, dongpo pork, and other slow-cooked meat dishes.

Shaoxing Tradition

Shaoxing wine has many different variations and one is called nu'er hong (女兒紅). Nu'er means "daughter" in Chinese and hong means "red." Red is a lucky color in both the Chinese and Taiwanese cultures and it adds a special significance to this celebratory wine. Every family in Shaoxing will make this version of Shaoxing wine when their daughter is 1 month old and bury the bottle in the ground until the day of their daughter’s wedding when they open it and drink it to celebrate.