Vinegars & Cooking Wines
Every cuisine has its arsenal of vinegars and wines to fortify and intensify the flavor of its food. For Chinese cooking, there is Shaoxing wine and a variety of vinegars.
Shaoxing wine originated from the region of the same name, in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang over 2,500 years ago. Amber in color, it is considered a huangjiu, or yellow wine, which is fermented from glutinous rice, containing an alcohol level ranging between 12-20% by volume, and can be aged from a few months to decades. The final product possesses a nutty and oxidized aroma with subtle sweetness and spice in flavor. Good quality ones are imbibed as a beverage as well as used in cooking. It is to Chinese cuisine what dry sherry is to Spanish cookery. In fact, one is often substituted for the other if the Chinese staple is not readily available. Sherry plays a better substitute than Shaoxing “cooking wines” which contain added salt and have an inferior flavor.
Shaoxing wine (紹興酒)is the magic ingredient in any dish referred to with “drunken” in its name, as in drunken chicken, drunken shrimp, or drunken crab. The popular cooking wine works as a marinade, ingredient, and is commonly incorporated into sauces. Potstickers, steamed fish, and red-braised pork call for the essential ingredient as well, to add flavor dimension.
Vinegar from Taiwan
Mijiu (米酒), clear white rice wine, made by distilling glutinous rice, is typically used in lighter dishes, a majority involving vegetables, salads, soups, and seafood. Less acidic than conventional white vinegar, and slightly sweet, it is similar in flavor to Japanese sake.
Not to be confused with the Zhejiang province known for the best Shaoxing rice wine, Zhenjiang is a city known for its Chinkiang black rice vinegar (镇江香醋) in the eastern Jiansu province. Dating back 1,400 years ago, the black vinegar, usually made from glutinous rice and malt, is the Chinese parallel to the balsamic vinegar of Italy with its consistency and concentrated flavor. It however possesses less sweetness and acidity than its Italian counterpart with the slightest hint of warm and sweet spices.
Dishes incorporating black vinegar include ribs, gong bao chicken, cold noodles, but it is also a key ingredient for dips for xiao long bao (soup dumplings) and potstickers, marinades, and sauces. It is a requisite ingredient in the popular Sichuan dish, bon bon chicken (which also calls for shaoxing wine).
There is then the mild, white rice vinegar counterpart to the black, also a core ingredient that plays a large role in pickled dishes, and the ever popular sweet and sour dishes. What differentiates the white from the black vinegar is the exclusion of malt in the white.
So much of Chinese recipes include wines and/or vinegars that truly play a crucial role in the deepening of flavors and elevating a dish.