“Wouldn’t it be nice if you could take a smell photo?” my husband Alan asked, as an aroma of rice wine and garlic wafted over us. Our server had just delivered a bowl of clams steamed in rice wine to our table, and the scent of the slightly sweet wine was almost intoxicating.

Rice wine, and particularly the Shaoxing wine from China’s Zhejiang province, is an essential ingredient in many Chinese dishes, adding both flavor and fragrance to a variety of preparations.

Zhejiang province is located just south of Shanghai – Hangzhou is the provincial capital – so this local rice wine is particularly prevalent in the cuisines of Shanghai, Taiwan, and eastern China. It provides liquid in steamed or braised dishes, from a simple steamed fish to “red cooked” preparations, like hongshao doufu (red cooked bean curd). It adds sweetness to sweet and sour pork and balances the garlic and ginger that frequently flavour stir-fried greens. You can incorporate rice wine into marinades for meat and to the fillings in a variety of dumplings.

Shaoxing wine. | Photo: Carolyn B. Heller

Though Shaoxing wine, like Japan’s sake, is made from rice, the flavors of these two wines are totally different. If you’re cooking at home and can’t find Shaoxing wine, many Chinese food writers suggest that you might substitute a dry sherry, but never sake.

Drunken Chicken

While rice wine is a common ingredient, there are a number of Chinese dishes where Shaoxing wine takes center stage. At Richmond’s Shanghai Morning Restaurant, on Alexandra Road, one popular cold plate is listed on the menu simply as “chicken in rice wine” ($6.50), although it’s often described more colorfully as “Drunken Chicken.”

It may not be the most photogenic dish, with thick slices of pale chicken wrapped in its yellow skin, it’s an aromatic appetizer flavored with a clear wine-based liquid. The chicken typically marinates for at least 24 hours until the rice wine thoroughly infuses the meat.

Shanghai Morning’s version of this dish was a 2016 Diner’s Choice pick in the annual Chinese Restaurant Awards, and it pairs particularly well with any of the restaurant’s steamed or pan-fried dumplings, like the excellent pan-fried pork buns that almost burst with richly flavored broth ($5.50).

“Three-cup” Dishes

Another category of dishes in which Shaoxing wine is an essential ingredient are the “three-cup,” or san bei, preparations. Chicken, tofu, fish, or other ingredients are braised in a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice wine, a trinity that gives this savory, salty dish, dotted with fresh Thai basil, its three-cup name.

You can find “three-cup” dishes at restaurants across Richmond, including Memory Corner (which also serves a “three-cup” squid), Pearl Castle, Uncle Lu, and Delicious Cuisine.

More Shaoxing Wine Preparations

Dongpo pork, served at Maji ($11.75), SuHang ($18.50), and several other Richmond restaurant, is a thick slab of pork belly, braised until it turns fall-apart tender in a mixture of Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, and water. Commonly found in Hangzhou, it gets its name from Su Dongpo, who was once governor of that city.