Several people have inquired in the past month about Shaoxing rice wine, a commonly used Chinese ingredient that I frequently reach for when making Asian dumplings. The questions asked include: (1) Where do I buy the rice wine? (2) Where is it stocked in an Asian market? and (3) What is a substitute for it? This post will hopefully answer those questions and more!
What is Shaoxing rice wine? How is Chinese rice wine used?
Amber colored, aromatic, and pleasantly nutty tasting, Shaoxing rice wine is the standard spirit in Chinese cooking. Made of brown glutinous (sweet/sticky) rice, it is one of the earliest types of liquors that the Chinese made. Shaoxing rice wine adds an unmistakable flavor and fragrance to dishes, whether it is mixed into Asian dumpling fillings, added to marinades for roasted meats such as char siu pork, combined with seasonings for stir-fries, or simmered with soy sauce and sugar for red-cooked dishes. If you’ve ever used sake in Japanese cooking, Shaoxing rice wine is employed quite similarly in Chinese cuisine. Sip on some of the rice wine and you’ll warm up quickly as it contains about 17 to 18% alcohol.
Surprise – Shaoxing rice wine is made in Shaoxing, a city located in Zhejiang, a province on the eastern coast of China. Picture Shanghai and Zhejiang province is right below it.Where and how do you buy Shaoxing rice wine?
The tall 750-milliliter bottles are sold at Chinese markets, typically near the frozen food section for reasons that I’m not clear on. I use Pagoda Brand, considered by cooks as the standard for decades. There are imposters so look for the golden pagoda logo, flanked by the words Pagoda and Brand:
Each bottle of Pagoda brand of Chinese rice wine costs about $4 and unless you use tons of it, it will last for a long time in the cupboard. The red label version of Pagoda brand is common and the blue and red label one is supposedly slightly better but I’ve not detected a radical difference aside from the fact that the blue label one is cute looking and has 17 instead of 18 percent alcohol. Shaoxing rice wine that comes in a charming ceramic jar is more expensive than the glass bottle kind. It is more delicate tasting, practically suitable for sipping. Whatever your price point, avoid Shaoxing “Cooking Wine” which is salted and tastes awful.
Do I really need Chinese rice wine for my recipes?
Yeah, you actually do as it gives the flavor an extra authentic boost. If you can't get the real Shaoxing rice wine, use a substitute. I did for years, until I figured out what I needed to look for at a Chinese market!
As indicated in my recipe ingredient listings, you can use a good dry sherry when Shaoxing rice wine is unavailable. (No cooking sherry as it’s often made from low-quality sherry and is salted!!!) If you’re unfamiliar with sherry, look for bottles that say “dry” or “pale dry.” A manzanilla or amontillado type of dry sherry has a well-balanced fragrance and nuttiness that matches that of Shaoxing rice wine; a fino sherry is a tad too dry. Try them chilled as an aperitif. Do not buy cream sherry as its sweet flavor is inappropriate for Chinese cooking. Some recipe books called for vodka or gin but I find that sherry is the best equivalent for Chinese cooking wine.