When I first began cooking Chinese food on my own, I wasn’t old enough to legally buy liquor. At that time, I was living with my brother and sister, so Dan helped me out. He took me to Trader Joe’s where I foolishly picked up a bottle of cream sherry. The recipe called for Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry. I didn’t know that cream sherry was sweet and Shaoxing was dry. I can’t recall what I made but it was no bueno.
Then he took me to a Chinese market where I had a hard time figuring out Shaoxing rice wine. Some were cooking wines shelved in one area and there were others in the liquor area. I bought the cooking one and it was salty and nasty tasting.
A few years later, a cookbook by Barbara Tropp enlightened to the fact that I needed Shaoxing without salt. Why cook with “cooking” sherry when you can cook and drink from regular sherry?
I’ve been cooking for decades and am far from being a pro at buying Shaoxing rice wine but I do know what to look for. I hope my tips below help you.
What is Shaoxing Rice Wine?
Aromatic and pleasantly nutty tasting, Shaoxing rice wine is the standard spirit in Chinese cooking. It adds an unmistakable flavor and fragrance to foods, including dumpling fillings, stir-fries, and red-cooked dishes.
Made of brown glutinous (sweet/sticky) rice plus a touch of wheat, Shaoxing rice wine is one of the earliest types of liquors produced in China. It’s produced in Shaoxing, a town in Zhejiang Province that’s known for famous eastern Chinese dishes like dong po braised pork belly (the Woks of Life has a good recipe) and West Lake soup; Zhejiang is near Shanghai.
Different grades of Shaoxing exist. with some being crafted for sipping. Here’s an example of Shaoxing that’s crafted for drinking; it’s considered higher caliber than hua diao that’s typically sold for cooking. I’ve used nuerhong for cooking too. The price difference is not much.
Where do you find Shaoxing Rice Wine? What’s a fair price for Shaoxing?
I typically go to Chinese markets for Shaoxing, but it depends on liquor laws where you live. At the market, I look in two places: the condiments and seasonings aisle and liquor sections. Sometimes they’re shelved atop frozen food cases where there is excess display real estate.
Shaoxing wine is affordable. I’ve seldom spent more than $10 at a Chinese market. Most often, the wine costs less than $5 per bottle.
How to select Shaoxing Rice Wine
Pagoda Brand has long been heralded as the go-to brand. There are many Pagodas so be observant when checking out the labels. Below is the logo to keep an eye out, plus the origin of the export company.
Shaoxing Rice Wine Tasting
Out of curiosity, I recently bought 3 bottles of Shaoxing to try. Two of them come from the same golden Pagoda Brand. The other is bottled in a squarish bottle and produced by a different maker. The colors are more or less the same.
The bottle on the left is the most common one sold, priced about $4 where I shop. It was my standard for years. The flavor is like a slightly rough fino sherry.
The one in the middle came tissue wrapped in a box. I paid more than $5 (I can’t recall the price) but its flavor was more complex and sophisticated than the red label kin.
The one on the right was about $9 and tasted similar to the middle one. Both the middle and right bottles tasted more refined than the ordinary red label Pagoda. There are other grades of Pagoda Brand of Shaoxing between the red and the boxed gold!
Does the price and quality matter? Like with any liquor that you cook with, it should taste good to you. My food was fine with the basic red label Shaoxing. With the higher priced ones, my food had a little more elegance.
Aged Shaoxing Rice Wine
What did I pay for? Aging. I chose the boxed bottle plus the one on the right because they were aged for 8 years. That was indicated on their labels:
Those characters indicate that the Shaoxing rice wines had been aged for eight (八) years (年). According to a Wikipedia entry on Chinese huangjiu (yellow wine), some Shaoxing may be aged for 50 years!
Shaoxing Rice Wine Substitutes
Learn from my mistakes and avoid cream sherry. Also, say no to “cooking” wines, which contain salt and can throw your flavors off.
What to do? Consider a good dry sherry, one labeled “dry” or “pale dry”. A Manzanilla or Amontillado sherry offers fragrance and nutty flavor that’s very similar to that of Shaoxing rice wine. Fino sherry will work too, but make sure it’s not too dry.
If sherry is unavailable, I’d try Japanese sake. It’s a different thing altogether but unless your recipe requires a lot, things will turn out alright.
Recipes to try with your Shaoxing Rice Wine