What Is Shaoxing Wine, And Why’s It In Almost Every Chinese Recipe?
by | May 2, 2021
What is Shaoxing Wine? and why’s it in almost every Chinese recipe? If you’ve done any Chinese cooking, you’ve probably heard of Shaoxing wine.
So let’s get something out of the way first.
This is a bottle of proper Shaoxing wine that we picked up in Shaoxing, which’s a small city in the Zhejiang province outside of Hangzhou.
It’s basically the Chinese equivalent of Burgundy – delicious to drink, delicious to cook with.
What Is Shaoxing Wine?
This, meanwhile, is Liaojiu…Chinese cooking wine.
For the most part, if you’ve been buying stuff labeled ‘Shaoxing wine’ in English in the West – this’s what you’re actually buying.
While it is roughly based on actual Shaoxing wine… it’s salted, spiced, and while usually totally fine to cook with is… decidedly not for drinking.
So in our recipe videos, I know that we should probably just call Liaojiu Shaoxing because that’s what everyone else does in English.but we stubbornly make the distinction because Shaoxing is a city that’s proud of its alcohol.
The culture there runs deep – wandering around the city you’ll find that going out to eat’s often as conjoined with wine drinking as something like Spanish tapas might be.
The city is the epicenter of the rice wine that bears its name, it’s a much-beloved drink there, and you can trace its popularity all the way back to the Song dynasty.
So then, what is Shaoxing wine?
Shaoxing wine is a sub-category of Huangjiu rice wine.
Compared to clear rice wines like Chinese Mijiu or Japanese sake, Huangjiu’s generally a bit sweeter and made using a mix of wheat and barley koji rather than purely rice koji.
Shaoxing wine, meanwhile, can really refer four different types of Huangjiu that all originated from that area.
First sort is Yuanhongjiu, which’s dry, and generally the cheapest, most basic form of Shaoxing wine.
Second is Jiafanjiu, semi-dry, which uses Yuanhongjiu as part of its base, adds more rice, and has a slightly higher sugar content.
The third kind is Shanniangjiu, semi-sweet, which uses aged Jiafanjiu as a base; and finally, Xiangxuejiu, which’s the sweetest of the four.
While these last two are called for in some super old-school imperial cuisine, what really interests us as cooks is the second one, Jiafanjiu.
This specific kind of wine became popular to cook with and drink within Zhejiang cuisine,in a restaurant in Shaoxing, it’s generally this Jiafanjiu that they’ve got on the table and next to their wok for cooking.
Now just like how Parma became known for Ham and San Marzano for Tomatoes, chefs tend to seek out the places that make the best stuff.
The whole region around Hangzhou was historically renowned for rice production, and Shaoxing’s position along the old grand canal allowed this specific rice wine, the Jiafanjiu to spread, culminating in the old saying “Yuejiu xing Tianxia” – Shaoxing wine reaches everywhere under heaven.
Expensive aged varieties would get packed in specific jars for shipping and called “Huadiao”, the name referring the artful engraving on the jugs.
Nowadays though, basically any kind of Shaoxing-style Jiafanjiu is referred to in China as Huadiao,and abroad as Shaoxing.
Among cooking wines in China, it’s generally the nicer sort and what we’ve grown to usually use.
Liaojiu, meanwhile, ferments huangjiu for only twenty days or so, then adds ethanol, and of course, a whole bunch of salt.
While that might sound damning, it honestly usually works just fine and, you know, you can’t argue with the price.
But no matter which wine you use, why do they seem to be used in almost every dish?
Use number one – balancing funk.
See, there’s three categories of ‘unpleasant odors’ in Chinese cooking: shanwei, which’s sort of like gaminess; xingwei, or fishiness; and saowei, which’s the poultry equivalent.
Unlike in English though where ‘gamey’ is thought of as kind of a binary, ‘Shanwei’ can encompass things that’re very shan like mutton to things that’re a little shan like pork.
Ditto with the other flavors – fish that’ve been caught and killed via suffocation can be pretty fishy… but in China an egg is also sometimes conceptualized as a little fishy.
So Chinese cooking’s often a game of counteracting and balancing those flavors, and for whatever reason, this kind of wine seems to do a really good job with funk in general.
Ever wonder how some people can enjoy straight up unfried stinky tofu?
Try chasing that stinky tofu with a good Shaoxing wine.
I dunno why, but it really really works together.
So that’s why you’ll see Shaoxing wine so much in Chinese marinades.
It’s less for texture, and more for taste.
So while any of these Huangjiu rice wines are often preferred, you can swap for a mijiu rice wine, a Japanese sake, a cheap bourbon, some dry white wine… just use your own judgment.
Use number two: for use while stir-frying.
See, a huge misconception about stir-frying is that it should just be max flame, all the time.
Like in all cuisines, heat control is fundamental to Chinese cooking.
And there’s three ways to control the heat in a wok: first, controlling the strength of the flame itself; second, controlling the distance the wok is from the flame, and third, by adding more stuff to the wok, which lowers the temperature.
So a common move is to take some wine, pour it over a spatula and around the sides of the wok to let it sizzle and basically immediately reduce away.
This lowers the temperature, so often we like to swirl it in right after we’re done frying the aromatics.
This wine’s used because it adds a nice subtle fragrance, but honestly any liquid would do the job.
Use number three: preserved or drunken dishes.
For this use, we generally recommend you use a nicer sort and skip the liaojiu, because the flavor of the wine itself’s more fundamental to the dish.
A good example’s drunken chicken, Zuiji, where poached chicken soaks in a Shaoxing wine-based brine for at least overnight but even up to a week.
You’ll see it too in stuff like Cantonese lushui master stocks, where the alcohol lends a nice flavor but also helps everything keep.
So if you’re abroad, for these dishes try to find something that says it’s Huadiao, though you’ll probably need to settle for something salted because of stupid.
American alcohol laws.
So Shaoxing is a great, charming little town – although a little bit on the touristy side… but the food is great, the wine is great… so if you ever find yourself in the Shanghai area, definitely check it out.