From planning a trip to Asia to flipping through a Chinese cookbook, understanding the varieties of rice wine and its role in many cultures will complement you're enjoyment of it. Exquisite Japanese sake, throat-burning moonshine and Chinese HuangJiu all fall under the umbrella of rice wine. For casual Asian cuisine, any basic form of rice wine available at your international grocer will be sufficient. However, some rice wine is labelled for cooking, so be sure to check whether your recipe calls for a dry rice wine or sweet rice wine.
Cultural Uses & Origins: Sake and Rice Wine
In the far-reaching world of rice wine, Japanese sake is one variety. While there are multiple kinds of Japanese sake, some sake is served warm, while other varieties are served chilled. Warmed Japanese sake is commonly poured from a decanter called a "tokkuri." Available pasteurised or unpasteurised, sake has a long role in Japanese culture, used ceremonially for important events and even religiously in the Shinto faith.
China, Vietnam, India and other southeast Asian countries drink other forms of rice wine. In China, rice wine may be the distilled rice drink Baijiu, a liquor, or the fermented HuangJiu alcoholic rice drink.
In the Lao culture, fermented rice wine is offered to family ghosts.
The Distinctions of Sake
Making sake is a specific art combining detailed milling and varying brewing processes. The actual grains of rice are milled away in different percentages, so that the kernels of rice are ground away to different degrees. Koji mould -- mould grown on steamed rice -- is used in the brewing process to break down the rice from a starch to a sugar. Depending on the type of sake, it may or may not have added distilled alcohol, affecting the overall alcohol content. Though sake is referred to as a white wine, sake, like other rice wines, is most similar to beer since it is not fruit-based, but rather grain-based.
Sake, Rice Wine and Fermentation
While the brewing process of sake is precise, the making of rice wine is much more varied. The drink may be distilled or fermented, representing an unpredictable range both of taste and alcohol content, with some forms reminiscent of vodka or moonshine. The practice of making rice wine is an ancient one, though, as seen in painted depictions of brewing rice beverages on Chinese relics.
Sake Vs. Rice Wine in the Kitchen
Many recipes that call for rice wine are of Chinese cuisine. However, substitutions may be made if you don't have rice wine on hand. Though some cooks feel comfortable substituting Japanese sake in place of Chinese rice wine, sake can be too sweet for the dish, depending on the kind of sake you have on hand. Most cooks instead recommend replacing rice wine with dry sherry. Rice wine is readily available for purchase online and in international grocery stores.