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Foodstuff: Shaoxing Cooking Wine

Shaoxing Wine 1

I have posted a very large number of Chinese dishes here on my blog and I daresay that in about 50 percent of them, I have called for the use of Rice Wine somewhere in the recipe. Simply calling for ‘rice wine’ is a bit like calling for ‘grape wine’ as the range of possible varieties is extensive and the use of one will yield results somewhat different than an other. Sometimes I use one of the Japanese varieties collectively known as ‘Sake’, but, more frequently, I use a specific Chinese sort known as ‘Shaoxing’.

Anybody who has spent much time browsing recipes for Chinese dishes will have come across the name ‘Shaoxing’ at one time or another, either in that form or else in one of the alternate spellings such as ‘Shaoshing’, ‘Shaosing’ or ‘Shao Hsing’. It is frequently listed as an ingredient but, almost as commonly, at least in recipes intended for western readers, Japanese rice wine or even common Sherry are suggested as alternatives. In truth, you can get by very nicely and produce perfectly acceptable results using one these, or other, substitutes where Shaoxing wine is specified, but the genuine article is not expensive, nor particularly hard to find, and it is well worth investigating…

The generic term for rice wine in Chinese is米酒 (mǐjiǔ), with the first character referring to uncooked rice, and the second meaning wine, or spirits. Within this broad category there is a main division (actually incorporating virtually all Chinese rice wines) known as黃酒 (huángjiǔ), or ‘yellow wine’), and this is a term that will also likely be familiar to those who have extensive Chinese cookery book collections.

Despite the name, the range of color for these so called ‘yellow’ wines can vary from pale and clear, to a very dark, almost reddish brown. The Shaoxing types, which have their origin in the city of Shaoxing in the eastern province of Zhejiang, are typically a dark, sometimes reddish, amber color, due to the use of red yeast rice during fermentation. It should be noted here, though, that the mere use of the name ‘Shaoxing’ on a label is not a guarantee that a particular product is indeed manufactured in Shaoxing (Chinese wine appellation apparently not being as rigorously  controlled as it for, say, French wines), and a given brand may very well come from somewhere else, with Taiwan being a major producer.

Shaoxing Wine 2

This is one of the brands of Shaoxing wine I currently have in my kitchen at present. As you can see, it is a very dark, almost mahogany-hued brown color, and, it does indeed, as noted on the label, originate in Zhejian province. As I mentioned above, Sherry (as long it is fairly dry), is generally regarded as an acceptable substitute for Chinese ‘Yellow Wine’ and when you taste this brand you can tell why. Although a saltiness dominates (salt being added so the product can be marketed as a ‘cooking wine’), the similarity to some brands of Sherry is quite remarkable.

Shaoxing Wine 3

This variety, noticeably lighter in color, does not specify Zhejiang on the label (it mentions the importer’s location only) and I rather suspect that it is hails from elsewhere. In this case, the similarity to Sherry is a little less pronounced (although still noticeable) and it has a curious, but not unpleasant undertone of bamboo with, perhaps, just a hint of raw sesame. It is not a lesser quality product than the first (and the fact that it may not be made in Shaoxing should not automatically be taken to suggest that), but I will say the I prefer the actual Shaoxing product as being more to my taste.

Anyway … if you happen to live in any sizeable urban center, Shaoxing wine will be available to you in many Asian groceries (the Kowloon Market in Ottawa, for example, typically carries 5 or 6 different brands at a time), and if you do not have immediate access to the article directly, you should easily be able to find it online. Again, you can quite easily produce terrific dishes, marinades and dipping sauces, using Japanese, Korean, or other varieties of rice wine, and Sherry goes a long way as a substitute, but if you like experimentation in the kitchen then I urge you to pick up a bottle or two of actual Shaoxing wine when the opportunity arises…



25 Comments Post a comment
  1. I also cook a lot with Shao xing wine. Have you noticed that one of our favorite brands of shaoxing is no longer is available? I don’t know what is going on but in all of the park n shop’s here in HK they no longer carry my favorite brand. I might have to look for the one from Taiwan instead… Wishing you a great week. Take Care, BAM

    June 3, 2013
    • That’s annoying when you get used to something and it disappears.

      June 4, 2013
  2. Beiieve me or not….I use California white wine instead! I think the Chinese wine is not wine but spirit, and is stronger. But I may be wrong…

    June 3, 2013
    • I use regular white wine where rice wine would go quite often. I don’t think any of the brands are significantly stronger in terms of alcohol content… some may be a little stronger but the alcohol is gone after cooking.

      June 4, 2013
  3. I am never without it. Sherry is probably harder to get in Dublin these days…

    June 3, 2013
    • There are lovely rice wines from Fujian as well … I will try to pick some up next visit to Ottawa in July.

      June 4, 2013
  4. I will pay attention and see if I come across a bottle of this wine, sounds interesting 🙂

    June 4, 2013
  5. Thanks for the simple explanation. When I next go to my Asian grocer, I will now know what to look for.

    June 5, 2013
  6. Very interesting post. Since I don’t have any Asian grocers near me, this is one ingredient that I usually substitute.

    June 5, 2013
  7. I remember having a conversation with another blogger (it might have been Michelle over at Gourmandistan) about Shaoxing wine marked as cooking wine. Just as I wouldn’t buy so-called cooking wine at the supermarket, and I wouldn’t buy mirin with added salt (I also buy that at the liquor store), I really try to not buy Shaoxing wine that has salt added to it. However, I find it’s a lot harder to find a good, reliable Chinese brand. Have you read Eileen Yin-Fei Lo’s books? As I’m illiterate, I fall back on her recommendation to look for Supreme Hua Tiao Chiew Shaoxing wine.

    June 7, 2013

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