The other day my husband sheepishly handed me a bottle of Shaoxing wine that he found in the attic and asked if I wanted to use it for my cooking.
“When did you buy this?” I asked, noticing that the color was a lot darker than I was used to.
“Seven years ago?” he said. “I forgot about it.” Usually I get annoyed when people hand off miscellaneous Asian ingredients for me to finish, but this accidentally aged bottle of Shaoxing wine turned out to be a real treasure.
Cooking with wine is universal. All wines are acids that can help draw out flavors and, depending on how old it is and what the base ferment is, wine can add complexity and layers that can’t otherwise be achieved with just plain old salt and pepper.
In Chinese cuisine, yellow wine is the cooking liquor of choice. Unlike grapes—which form the base of most Western wines—yellow wine is made from either rice or millet, which gives it a more savory and earthy finish.
In the U.S., I’ve found that the most accessible brand on the market is Pagoda Shaoxing wine. But if you happen to be confronted by a lush and diverse aisle of Chinese yellow wine, the rule of thumb is that cheaper versions are used for cooking and the more expensive ones are reserved for drinking. A shot of higher end yellow wine is a great way to end a heavy meal, but if you want to splurge, really old Shaoxing wine—like the bottle my husband gave me—is particularly good for long marinades. Like with grape wines, rice wines also get more complex with time.
Comparatively speaking, Shaoxing wine is to Chinese cuisine as sherry wine is to Spanish cuisine. It’s a dry wine that deglazes and adds flavor to meat, and it’s made of a glutinous rice that’s inoculated with a starter and then aged. The wine’s origin is in its namesake—the Chinese city of Shaoxing in the eastern province of Zhejiang. While yellow wine is produced all over China, Shaoxing has distinguished itself as a leading production hub, so much so that the wine there is now the de facto Chinese cooking wine outside of China. It’s said that the water from the local lake makes all the difference, but I think the true reason why it’s been so broadly embraced is because it’s mild and neutral yet packs a punch if used long enough as a marinade.
Shaoxing is a nice pantry staple to have; a splash or two of it at the end of a heavy stir-fry is the most appropriate use of it. But today’s recipe is much more involved, and I think it’s a fantastic way to showcase the natural sweetness and aroma of the liquor. This is my recipe for a Shaoxing marinated chicken, which is basically cooked chicken that’s steeped in a sauce for a minimum of two days. It’s been a family favorite for decades, but when I called my mom to ask for her recipe, she just sent me a link for Lee Kum Kee’s pre-made Shaoxing wine marinade. All she does is cook some chicken, cover it with that Lee Kum Kee sauce, and leave that in the refrigerator for two days. That’s one way to do it, but it’s just as easy to make your own marinade with a tall bottle of Shaoxing wine and a couple of other pantry staples.
My mom likes to make this dish with chicken legs, though any meaty cut of poultry—like thighs or breasts—work the best for this.
It took a bit of experimentation to get the ratio of wine and water just right. Too much wine and the chicken is inedible, too little and there’s just no point. The best ratio is one-part water to one-part wine, then a bit of soy sauce and sugar for extra flavor. Also, the older the wine, the better. I tried this with newly store-bought Shaoxing wine the first time, and on the second time, I used the accidentally aged wine from my husband. The latter gave a much more elegant aftertaste.
Shaoxing Wine Chicken
Cooking time: 30 minutes actual cooking time, 2-3 days to marinade the chicken
For the marinade:
1. In a pot, add the chicken and enough water to cover the chicken by one inch. Then add ginger and turn the heat up to high. When the water boils, turn the heat to low, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until the internal temperature of the chicken registers 165 F.
2. Take the chicken out to cool
3. Meanwhile, make your marinade by combining wine, drinking water, sugar, light soy sauce and oyster sauce. Mix thoroughly.
4. In a tupperware or a pot with a lid, put in the cooked chicken and cover with the marinade. Place this in the refrigerator for a minimum of 2 days and up to 5 days before eating.
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