Rice wine has a colorful history. Evidence exists that rice wine has been brewed in China since prehistoric times, with first written records engraved on bones and shells dating from the Shang Dynasty. Traditionally, glutinous rice was considered the best grain for brewing, but modern methods may utilize polished rice of various grains.

Today, rice wine is still widely used in China and Asia, mostly for cooking, since the common variety has a rather foul flavor (Orwell compares Victory Gin to rice wine in 1984). It is highly alcoholic, commonly as high as 22% alcohol.

Note: Japanese sake is also derived from rice, but it is not wine, though both are much more alcoholic than beer.

Homemade Chinese rice wine


jiu niang = wine ferment or wine dregs

Jiu literally means alcohol, as in the kind one drinks. It is usually translated into 'wine' in English. Niang means ferment, and also refers to the mash from which wine and spirits are made. If you reverse the order of the words, it means 'to make wine.'

Jiu niang is a rustic rice wine product that is drunk, eaten as a snack and also used to flavor a number of dishes. It can be purchased from Asian groceries, usually in glass jars in the refrigerated section. It is made by adding a commercially available yeast cake to cooked glutinous rice, and allowing the whole to ferment for several weeks.

The yeast cake is known as jiuqu 酒麴 Thank you interrobang for finding the unicode for 'qu!' (also colloquially referred to as jiuyao or 'wine medicine' 酒藥 ). It contains a number of components beyond the yeast in order to promote good fermentation. According to one source:

Jiuqu, or ''Qu'' in Chinese Phonetic Alphabet ( Koji in Japanese) , are molded cereals which are source of enzymes necessary for the breakdown of carbohydrates and proteins in grains, they are also used as a portion of fermentation substrates. Jiuqu is widely used in alcoholic beverage industry, vinegar production, and soysauce manufacture.
The Jiuqu is roughly equivanlent to the English word malt and yeast, but is somewhat wider in scope, since it may include filamentous fungi as well as bacteria, and connotes the starter or inoculum used to initiate various kinds of fermentations. They are croase enzyme preparation.
The Jiuqu is traditionally prepared by natural inoculation of molds, bacteria, and yeasts and their growth on the grains. In a practical sence, moulds, yeasts and bacteria naturally present in the environment and on equipments serve as inocula for preparing Qu. Moistened wheat flour or rice flour are suitable substrates for their growth. During the growth of these microorganisms, a lot of hydrolysing enzymes are excreted and immobilized on the grains which are ready to use as sources of amylase for conversion of starch to sugar, followed by conversion of sugar to ethanol by yeasts.1

For home production juiqu balls are available in little plastic bags of two in Asian markets. They look like dusty grey/tan chalk balls about an inch in diameter. One ball is sufficient for about four pounds of rice (uncooked weight). When the cooked rice is no longer hot, but still somewhat warm, a ball is broken up and mixed into the rice. This mixture is placed in a large, clean jar or bowl and loosely covered so that it can still breathe. The whole thing is placed in a warm place and permitted to work its magic. As the rice ferments, it will form a floating mass on top of a cloudy, slightly yellow, liquid. The liquid is your jiu and the whole point of this exercise.

Actually, it isn’t. The jiu is certainly very nice, but that floating mass of rice, with a judicious quantity of the jiu is what I’m after. You see, the wine made this way is quite sweet. Polished glutinous rice is mostly starch, after all. It is wonderfully fruity in scent, and very pleasant. Sometimes, if you buy it from that invaluable Asian grocery, if it’s been sealed in a jar for a while, it will have carbonated. Nice, but a bit cloying. If so desired, you can separate out the rice mash from the liquid, drink the liquid and season foods with the rice. We don’t usually bother. For us, everything goes in even proportions into smaller, clean glass jars, and is stored in the refrigerator. It keeps almost indefinitely this way.

In my family, we use the rice wine most often to flavor two things: soft poached eggs and tang yuan.

I can hear it now. 'Sweet eggs in wine soup?!' you say. All I can respond is, it's really quite good, not very sweet, nice and hot on a chilly afternoon. The broth is winey, and watery in a good way. It is considered one of those sustaining foods, good for new mothers and old people. Try it, you may actually like it!

酒釀蛋 jiu niang dan = wine dregs egg. It is prepared by poaching eggs in simmering water until the whites are firm but the yolks are still somewhat runny. The eggs are placed into single serving bowls, with a small teaspoonful of sugar and a quantity of the hot water. Several tablespoonfuls of the jiu niang rice and wine are added to the bowl and stirred so that the rice warms up and the sugar melts.
Alternately, the rice can be added directly to the cooking water right before the eggs. Bring the water back to a simmer and poach the eggs. The sugar is again added directly to the bowl. I find that cooking the rice for too long, or placing it in too much water, leads to a loss of fragrance and flavor, so I usually place it directly in the bowl.
酒釀湯圓 jiu niang tang yuan = wine dregs soup (broth) rounds. Tang yuan are chewy balls made from glutinous rice flour, and stuffed with a sweet paste. The filling can be made from black sesame seeds, lotus seeds, peanuts, or indeed just about anything sweet. They are sold frozen in Asian markets, and should be stored frozen. Don’t mistake these for the smaller balls that are entirely made of glutinous rice starch and are sometimes dyed pink. These are quite a bit larger, about 1-1.25 inches in diameter. Often, they are packaged in a single layered tray to keep from sticking together.
To cook tang yuan, drop them into a largish pot of boiling water, and wait until they float. Make sure they don’t stick to the bottom of the pot! Scoop into individual bowls with a generous quantity of the now starchy boiling water, and add a spoonful of sugar. If serving with jiu niang, stir in a few tablespoonfuls of the jiu niang rice as well.

Jiu niang can also be used to season savory dishes. I’ve had it in braised chicken, and I’ve seen a recipe for lobster which had some as well. I confess to not really liking this permutation. Jiu niang imparts a very sweet, fruity, winey flavor. I find it a bit too sweet. However, the scent of the wine was swooningly delicious in its savory context, and I don’t think I object to the sweet/savory combination but rather the particular sweet/savory dish I have had. And, when all was said and done, it wasn’t bad. Just a bit too sweet.


Sources:
1 www.sytu.edu.cn/zhgjiu/u2-1.htm – this is part of the Grandiose Survey of Chinese Alcoholic Drinks and Beverages located at: www.sytu.edu.cn/zhgjiu/umain.htm

A picture of jiu niang tang yuan: www.seas.upenn.edu/~wangjin2/images/dish/011.jpg

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