Ubiq­ui­tous through­out East Asia, the world of rice wine is in­cred­i­bly di­verse. We meet three ex­perts in milky Korean mak­ge­olli, funky Ok­i­nawan awamori and am­ber Chi­nese huangjiu.

Crave - - PEOPLE - Words Jo­hannes Pong Pho­tos Sa­man­tha Sin

Tim Tse has worked for 12 years at Dong Lai Shun, fa­mous for its mut­ton hot­pot as well as be­ing a bas­tion of fine Huaiyang food in Hong Kong. This del­i­cate and re­fined cui­sine from Yangzhou in­formed much of the culi­nary cul­ture of Jiang­nan, the re­gion around the mid­dle and lower reaches of the Yangtze. Lo­cated within this cul­tural sphere are 2,000-year-old ur­ban set­tle­ments such as Hangzhou and Nan­jing (for­mer cap­i­tals of China) and the an­cient city of Shaox­ing, which for cen­turies has pro­duced the finest huangjiu (yel­low wine), fer­mented gluti­nous rice wine aged in ce­ramic ves­sels.

Just as Cham­pagne is anal­o­gous to the bub­bly pro­duced in that re­gion, Shaox­ing is syn­ony­mous with this Chi­nese yel­low wine, al­though qual­ity wines are also pro­duced in Tai­wan. The flavours are com­plex and vary so much that it takes a while to ap­pre­ci­ate its char­ac­ter­is­tics.

“Some Shaox­ing wines are sweeter, some are bit­ter, but that doesn’t mean that sweeter is bet­ter,” Tse says. “It’s im­por­tant to pick a Shaox­ing wine ac­cord­ing to your own taste.” How­ever, Tse warns that a lime­stone taste means the wine is of low qual­ity. The taste of al­co­hol should also be sub­tle. “Good Shaox­ing has a milder and sub­tler al­co­holic taste com­pared to low-qual­ity ones. You can tell the wine is of good qual­ity if it has a long-last­ing af­ter­taste.”

Non-chi­nese will im­me­di­ately pick up on its sim­i­lar­ity to sherry or Madeira, with an aroma of bit­ter cit­rus peel. The lakes and rivers in Zhe­jiang prov­ince pro­vide min­er­al­ity and salti­ness. Some wines may have notes of dried mush­rooms, some in­tensely savoury, al­most like an al­co­holic soy sauce.

The qual­ity of Shaox­ing also gets bet­ter with age. 50- and 100-year-old wines can be found in China, rang­ing from el­e­gant, am­ber liq­uids – light and lus­trous in colour – to wines in darker hues of brown that are thicker in tex­ture and taste.

Tra­di­tion­ally, whole pre­served plums are added to Shaox­ing wine for a fruitier taste. “You may en­joy Shaox­ing wine with ice and le­mon slices, or sprin­kle on pre­served plum pow­der to add a sweet note to the wine. How­ever, if you come across a good huangjiu, I would sug­gest drink­ing it without adding any­thing, that way you can truly taste the wine’s com­plex flavours,” Tse says.

Shaox­ing wine makes good cock­tails, de­spite its age-old tra­di­tions. “I tried a cock­tail made of 10-year-old Shaox­ing wine mixed with le­mon juice, soda and topped with plum pow­der. Called huang­tudi (yel­low earth), it’s light am­ber in colour, with a re­fresh­ing taste and best served in sum­mer,” he says.

Tra­di­tion­ally, Shaox­ing wine is served in small white porce­lain cups, which are bet­ter suited to main­tain­ing the tem­per­a­ture of the wine – the best serv­ing tem­per­a­ture is 38°C. It does not re­quire any de­cant­ing, al­though Chi­nese fine-din­ing restau­rants will serve good huangjiu in a sep­a­rate ce­ramic dis­penser, warmed in hot wa­ter.

“Gu Yue Long Shan and Pagoda are two brands pro­duc­ing good-qual­ity Shaox­ing, and the price range is broad enough to cater to every­one,” Tse notes.

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