The Ancient Tradition of Rice Wine in China
Rice wine has been a part of Chinese culture for thousands of years. Rice wine is also widely known as huangjiu (“yellow wine”) and is different than baijiu because it is not distilled.
The beverage is so ingrained in the culture that the roots of it are intertwined with myth. The exact date of invention is the subject of fierce dispute.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing tales of rice wine’s heritage was that of Shao Kang, who became an important ruler during the Xia Dynasty (2070-1600 BCE).
Shao Kang was a prince and merely a young child when the king was murdered. He vowed to find whoever was responsible and avenge his father’s death. He spent his adolescence working for his grandfather, King Qi, tending to food and affairs of hospitality.
While toiling he decided to stow some rice and other grains in the hollow of a tree. One day, while passing by that same tree, he noticed a peculiar fragrance wafting up from the hollow.
After sampling the concoction, he deduced the alcoholic properties.
When he grew up, he changed his name to Du Kang for reasons that remain a mystery and executed the man responsible for killing his father.
He eventually became king. Since he had fulfilled his sacred oath to kill his father’s murderer, he found extra time on his hands. He spent much of this time perfecting his technique of making wine.
His special wine was loved throughout the land. He became so adept at making wine that it was said that a man who spent the night drinking his finest concoction could stay drunk for three years. He solidified his legend as the father of winemaking in China.
Today in China, the name Du Kang is associated with the finest rice wine.
The story of Du Kang serves as a reminder that folk tales and legend have played an important role in this ancient society and that the roots of rice wine reach deeply into the past.
So drinking rice wine in China offers the opportunity to drink deeply from China’s rich culture.
What is Rice Wine?
In China there is a precedent of rice wine and wine made of other fruits (most notably including plum wine), which predates the use of grapes in making wine.
As a result, the term wine in used widely to describe various alcoholic beverages. The distinction between what the West would refer to as wine (an alcoholic beverage derived from grapes) and from everything else is a relatively new phenomenon in China.
Although grape wines are increasingly popular in China, rice wine is the traditional “wine” of choice. The process of making rice wines varies greatly depending on the methods used to make the wine and the ingredients.
It is important to note that although rice is the predominant ingredient used in these beverages, other grains such as wheat, millet, and sorghum are sometimes used to make huangjiu. Some of the most popular wines are: Shaoxing Wine, Jimo Old Wine (also called laojiu), and Red Ferment Wine.
How to Enjoy Rice Wine in China
We will look at the most popular types of rice wine, so you will have an idea what to order when you are ready to dive into the exciting world of rice wine:
Jimo Old Wine (laojiu)
At the end of the Qingdao peninsula, you will find the county of Jimo. This wine is called laojiu which roughly translates to “rich and mellow.” The roots of the wine run deep; it has been consumed there since the 7th century BCE.
The wine, derived from millet, is on the sweet side and the viscosity causes it to stick to the side of the glass. Due to its sweetness and body, it is a beverage that you may like to reserve for a toast at the end of a satisfying meal.
Red Ferment Wine
Red ferment wine uses mold that grows on polished round rice for a fermentation process that usually takes about four months. After this period the mash is pressed and then the wine is aged for an additional period of about three years. This process yields a wine with a ruddy hue and a sweet taste. This wine is definitely best as an after-dinner drink; think of it somewhat like a mellow sherry.
The wine is named for its birthplace: Shaoxing, which is located in Zhejiang province. It is aged in the famous Shaoxing wine pots for extended periods of time and featuring a unique herb mixture that gives it a distinct flavor.
These wines receive vintage dates just as grape wines often do. The wine is generally served as an aperitif, but it can also be paired with meat dishes, specifically pork and duck.
The wine is also a popular ingredient in dishes such as drunken crab and drunken tofu. Chairman Mao’s favourite dish was said to be made with Shaoxing wine and braised pork belly.
He referred to it as “brain food” and amazingly credited it for helping to defeat his enemies.
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He has written for The Permaculture Research Institute and Uisio among other prominent outlets.
He is the author of Death: An Exploration (2016). For more visit his official website: www.lorenmayshark.com