By Allyson Hamilton
Imagine you’re walking through the streets of Shaoxing, a city in the Zhejiang province on the southern shore of Hangzhou Bay on the eastern coast of China. You hear Yue opera being sung in the local dialect and see vendors selling fermented stinky tofu and meigan cai among other regional specialties along the side of the street. You find your way into a small restaurant overlooking the bay and can hear the fisherman unloading their catch, the raucous commotion of the kitchen equipment, the bustle of the busy street, and have the house specialty brought out to you. You are presented with three courses, each somehow reminding you of the last. The first is a steamed pork and preserved vegetable dish (Mei Cai Kou Rou) with a side of stinky tofu (chòu dòufu). The next course is wine chicken (Zui Ji) with pickled cucumber, and the last is Duck with Bean Sauce (Jiang Ya). It isn’t until you start sipping your warm beverage that you realize the common ingredient, Shaoxing wine.
Shaoxing dishes have three main courses: “Mei,” “Zui,” and “Jiang.” Mei refers to preserved vegetable dishes made with ingredients like meigan cai or bean curd. Zui means “drunk,” and often refers to a cooking method. Zui Ji is made with rice wine vinasse which is a by-product of the winemaking process. Seafood is also commonly cooked using this method. Jiang means “bean sauce,” and duck is the most famous pairing. Central to all dishes from the region is Shaoxing wine or its by-products.
Rice wine has been produced in China for over 2,500 years and was originally produced for ceremonial use. One of these ceremonies is still practiced, Nǚ Ér Hong. Nǚ Ér Hong is a Shaoxing tradition where family members brew a jar of wine and store it underground when a daughter is born. The jar is opened in celebration on her wedding day . Shaoxing wine transitioned from a ceremonial beverage to a popular drink at banquets thanks to councilors from Shaoxing traveling to other provinces. Shaoxing wine brewing often starts around November because the colder weather helps to control the fermentation process. Once pasteurized, the wine is sealed in clay jars and can be kept on a shelf for decades where the flavor continually mellows .
Shaoxing wine, like many famous wines, has to be produced in a specific region (like Chardonnay). It is made by fermenting glutinous rice (sometimes with sorghum or millet) with a wheat-based yeast. The color is amber, and not unlike clarified apple juice. The sensory components are said to contain notes of ripe plum, dates, and caramel .
While it can’t be made at home (unless you happen to live in Shaoxing), a close approximation can be made with basic ingredients. To begin, you will need 3 cups uncooked glutenous rice, a glass jar with a pressure-tolerant lid (threaded is best), a sterilized cheese cloth, 1-2 Chinese yeast balls (contain fungi, yeasts, and bacteria and are sold specifically for rice wine making), equipment to cook the rice, and some kind of straining system (cheesecloth or nut bags work nicely). Normal baking yeast can be used, but the resulting product will taste entirely different. Rice is mostly flavorless, and rice wine is flavored by the microorganisms in the yeast balls.
The first step is to cook the rice. While waiting for the rice to cook, crush the yeast balls into a fine powder. This can be achieved with a rolling pin and a zip lock bag or in a pestle and mortar. Once the rice has cooled, mix thoroughly with the powdered yeast balls, and add to the jar. Add the sterilized cheesecloth over the top of the jar and screw down the lid very tightly. Many brewing processes require an airlock, but the sterilized cloth will make enough of a gap to let the CO2 gas out and keep external bacteria from contaminating the rice wine. Keep the container in a dark and warm (about 70°F) location to ferment. At about two weeks you should expect to see white spores running through the rice, a significant portion of liquid and CO2 bubbles, and the rice pellet starting to float. You can extract at this point, but often another week of fermentation will increase the yield. If the rice starts sinking, it signals the end of fermentation. Strain the rice from the liquid using cheesecloth. Cold crash the wine to end fermentation and prevent oxidation. To do this, lower the temperature to ~35-40°F for 24 hours. At this point, you can sweeten or flavor the wine (if desired). The percent alcohol by volume is approximately 20%, so be sure to drink responsibly [4-5].
 Moyan, W. (2010). Shaoxing Dishes. China Culture. Retrieved October 4, 2022, from http://en.chinaculture.org/focus/focus/cities/2010-08/11/content_390600.htm
 Tao, N. (2021, August 27). Nǚ Ér Hong: How a rice winemaker created a legendary Chinese brand. The China Project. Retrieved October 4, 2022, from https://thechinaproject.com/2021/08/26/nu-er-hong-how-a-rice-winemaker-created-a-legendary-chinese-brand/
 Tao, N. (2021, May 13). In Shaoxing, young winemakers attempt to revive China’s original spirit. The China Project. Retrieved October 4, 2022, from https://thechinaproject.com/2021/05/13/shaoxing-winemakers-attempt-to-revive-chinas-original-spirit/
 Hui, Y. H., & Culbertson, J. D. (2006). Handbook of Food Science, Technology, and engineering. Taylor & Francis.
 Username: Sonofgrok. (2012, October 14). Making traditional rice wine. cheap, fun, and different. Homebrew Talk – Beer, Wine, Mead, & Cider Brewing Discussion Forum. Retrieved October 4, 2022, from https://www.homebrewtalk.com/threads/making-traditional-rice-wine-cheap-fun-and-different.361095/
 Featured Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia.
SMF Blog Writer
Allyson received her B.S. in Chemistry at Indiana University Bloomington. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Food safety at the University of Arkansas. Allyson also works as an English as a second language tutor for Chinese students and enjoys reading and writing about all things FOOD in her spare time.