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Rice Wine article by the editor in 2005

by Jacqueline M. Newman


Spring Volume: 2005 Issue: 12(1) page(s): 28 and 30

Wines made from southern China’s most well-known grain are probably as old as the earliest rice found or cultivated. While rice wine may not have been the first wine consumed by the Chinese, it certainly could have been their first fermented beverage, and it probably was their first fermented food.

Shen Nong, some seven thousand years ago, is said to have fermented rice grains. In one ancient volume, the Suwen, there is discussion between the legendary Emperor Huangdi and one of the founders of Chinese medicine, Qibo. It was about which grain makes the best alcohol; the time frame is circa the 21st century BCE.

Some say the sticky starch cultivars of various Setaria or sticky millet grains were the earliest brewed beverages. Others disagree and claim that both glutinous and non-glutinous varieties of Setaria and Panicum or, that is broomcorn millet and rice were probably made and consumed about the same time. These were made by Yangshou farmers from 5000 to 3200 BCE when clay vessels including steamers were in use, available to hold and ferment these grains.

Rice wines were certainly popular during the Shang (1600 BCE through 1045 BCE) and the Zhou dynasties (1045 BCE until 221 BCE). While there is disagreement about glutinous versus non-glutinous cereal grains for fermentation, what is certain is that advanced cereal farming was needed to maintain enough of any one variety of a single grain to make sure the fermentation went the same way each time. This assured the same alcoholic taste from each batch.

Flavor deciders say the cuisines of China includes the basic tastes of soy sauce, rice wine, fresh ginger, etc. Agree or disagree with this list, fermentations of the various millet types never maintained the popularity that rice wines did, so they are not included. Because the word ‘wine’ can mean any alcoholic potency to the Chinese, what beverage the early writers were telling about may not be clear. Also, some early grains were called different things by different people; so it make sense to limit this article’s discussion to rice fermentations, better known as rice wines.

Popular in Eastern and Western China and in Taiwan and Hong Kong, the least understood items about rice wines are their various tastes. Only some know that most fermented rice beverages use yeast and other fungi to start the very process that makes these wines. What is known, is that the Chinese like the flavor rice wine gives food, appreciate its pleasant aroma, and enjoy the taste, and the low alcohol content.

In the traditional Chinese belief system, rice wines are considered strengthening foods. They can be added to main dishes and sweet dessert-like foods. They can also be part of some snacks and beverages, consumed with or without other ingredients, ingested as a snack or snacks, and just had plain as a beverage.

Rice wine consumption varies in and outside of China, as did and does its role in the culture. Wine vessels were important ritual objects during Shang (circa 1600 - 1045 BCE) and later dynasties. Some were used only for rice wines, others held rice wine mixtures, particularly rice and sorghum ferments. Usually, each vessel had its own purpose and it held its own particular contents.

In the Wei Dynasty, specifically the Northern Wei (386 CE - 584 CE), books were written about various rice wines and how to make them. One such, Important Things for Ordinary People, details how to make these fermented beverages. The instructions discuss fermenting and pressing the rice; most did not detail how to distill this alcoholic beverage. That probably came later, hundreds of years later. Therefore, these early wines were of low alcoholic content.

Questions arise as to what dishes were made with rice wines. The answer is, of course, a plethora of preparations incorporated small amounts of rice wine. Only one dish used a lot of rice wine, it was chicken cooked in or with rice wine. This chicken dish was and is popularly known as Drunken Chicken. Today, a similar dish is also made with shrimp. Some other recipes make either of these dishes with rice wine and rice vinegar. Other dishes using rice wine include Sizzling Rice Soup, Sesame Oil and Egg Congee, Chicken or Duck Stuffed with Glutinous Rice, etc. Not limited to poultry or shrimp, there are fish dishes stuffed with taro, Chinese pumpkin Stuffed with Dry Bean Curd, and Bamboo Leaves Wrapped Around Rice, to name but a few, that use rice wines.

Rice wines are fed to new mothers. They are encouraged not to drink water, but rather to consume what some stores in China sell as ‘Mother's Rice Water.’ This beverage is actually rice wine and water, its alcoholic content about one-quarter to one percent alcohol. One story tells a mother to drink two hundred bowls worth during the first month after the baby’s birth. At the one percent level, that is a rather large and an unhealthy amount.

Though we never checked and can find no one who really seems confident about the amount of alcohol in this beverage, our guess is that there is virtually no alcohol in this commercial drink. Several grandmas we spoke to told us they only put in a spoonful or two into a large bottle when making it at home for their daughters.

In Taiwan and in the Fujian Province, the leftovers of making rice wine are also used in many dishes. Known as 'wine lees,' these can be found red or white, depending upon whether the rice was red rice or white rice. Most are known as Min dishes; their origin, the earlier Min culture in southern China. A very fine Xiamin Spring Roll we tasted at a friend’s home some years ago used the fermented white rice wine lees. Xiamin is the second largest city if the Fujian Province. A delicious Fuzhou Pork Dumpling Soup served had a mite of the red wine lees in its very delicate pork and egg white dumplings. Fuzhou is the capital city of the province. That same family also made us a Chicken with Chestnuts dish with several tablespoons of red wine lees.

These dishes were our introduction to wine lees, sometimes marketed as ‘Distillers Grain’ or ‘Fuzhou Distillers Grain’ or even just 'Fermented Wine Rice.’ We have been incorporating white and red wine lees into many Chinese dishes since that delicious dinner.

To our as yet unsophisticated taste buds in terms of wine lees there are small differences, color the most striking. Not so in rice wines. So when buying yours, first check the alcohol content. It can range from sixteen to forty percent. Those labeled cooking rice wines often have salt in them. We tend to avoid them. Some now labeled ‘dry rice wine’ are kicked, that is the fermentation is started with cane sugar. We skip those, as well.

Reading labels carefully does not always help. Keep in mind that those saying ‘red rice wine’ may be telling their alcohol content. Normally the ‘red’ in this case may mean a low amount of alcohol. Each brand tastes differently. So purchase but one and taste before cooking and/or drinking. When you find and appreciate one, soak off the label after consumption. As many brands look alike, go label in hand to purchase more. This does help when purchasing rice wine again. Do be the ‘curious cook’ and only be satisfied when you like a brand and one particular variety enough to drink it plain and cook with it. Then do so often.

We are working on collecting Fujianese recipes that use either red or white wine lees. If you have one or more, do add it to our collection. And, if the recipe has a tale, share that, too!

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