IT’S not only wine and food at the table that make culinary soul mates. Alcohol used in the cooking process can also enliven the taste of what we eat.
From fermented liquors like wine and beer to distilled spirits like Maotai, alcohol adds depth to meat and fish dishes. Oxtails braised in red wine. Mussels simmered in white wine. Lime chicken cooked with tequila.
Just as in the west, China has a long history of cooking with alcohol. Countless recipes include Chinese cooking wine, or liao jiu, among the list of ingredients.
And there’s no reason for those who don’t drink to avoid its use in cooking. Alcohol evaporates during cooking, leaving only rich flavor and aroma in its wake.
Yellow wine, or huangjiu, is perhaps best known as the ideal companion to steamed hairy crabs in autumn. It can be enjoyed cold or warm.
Yellow wine is fermented from rice and has an alcohol content of about 13-15 percent. It’s most notable production is in Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province. In fact, it is often called simply Shaoxing Wine. Some consider the drink a healthy beverage when consumed in moderation because of its amino acid content.
There are different varieties of yellow wine, distinguished by sugar levels. They range from dry to sweet. The dry variety is best with vegetables and cold dishes, while the sweeter wines go well with meat and bold-flavored seafood. The sweetest of the yellow wines is ideal with desserts.
Yellow wine is also a cheap condiment. The common liao jiu sold in markets is seasoned with additions like peppercorns or star anise. These wines, of course, are not for drinking.
Cooking wine is excellent in marinades to temper any unwanted tastes in fish, shrimp or meat. It adds a more full-bodied taste to dishes. In many recipes, yellow wine can be a substitute for seasoned cooking wine, but substituting distilled white spirits isn’t recommended.
Yellow wine is commonly used in famous dishes like Dongpo pork and Shaoxing yellow wine chicken soup.
Yellow wine and egg drink is the Chinese version of eggnog. It’s a popular warm cocktail in winter, made with beaten egg in heated Shaoxing wine and flavored with brown sugar. It’s slightly sweet and certainly comforting on a cold day.
Distilled white spirits have a high alcohol content of around 57 percent. Their bold flavor makes them good in cooking some dishes but too overwhelming in cooking others. You need to be selective.
As a beverage, white spirits are served as clean shots but are rarely used in cocktails because their invasive aroma would overwhelm all other ingredients.
Last year, however, internationally renowned bartender Cihan Anadologlu visited Shanghai and created an interesting cocktail using Maotai at the Jade on 36 Bar. He mixed it with gin, ginger beer, cucumber and dill. Even though only a touch of Maotai was used, the aroma was the first thing to greet drinkers.
In Shanghai cuisine, an all-time favorite dish is pea sprouts flavored with white spirits.
The dish takes no more than one minute to prepare. It marries the sweetness of the sprouts with the contrasting and aggressive flavor of the white spirits. The fresh, tender sprouts are quickly tossed in a wok with a bit of salt and sugar added. At the very end, a white spirit is splashed into the mix.
Different chefs different brands of spirit to make this dish. More upscale Chinese restaurants in Shanghai, like Hai Pai and Xin Da Lu, favor Wuliangye, a spirit distilled from wheat, rice, corn, sorghum and glutinous rice.
Because of the high alcohol content, white spirits can also act as a sterilizer for shrimp or crab served raw or in “drunken-style” recipes.
Drunken shrimp and crab use ingredients from both freshwater and the sea. Live shrimp or crab are left to soak in combined white spirits and yellow wine for several hours before serving with seasonings and sauce.
Qiang xia is a variation of drunken shrimp that uses smaller freshwater shrimp. They marinate in white spirits for 10 minutes before serving.
The creatures are semi-alive when eaten.
Although these dishes are very popular locally, eating uncooked shellfish does pose some health risk, especially because of water pollution. Shanghai bans restaurants from serving drunken shrimp and crab from May 1 to October 31 every year, and qiang xia is forbidden all year round.
Salted duck egg is a preserved food made by soaking fresh duck eggs in brine. There are several methods to make salted duck eggs, and one very easy way is to use white spirits.
After rinsing the eggs and drying the surface with paper toweling, place the eggs in a white spirit for one to two minutes. The eggs are then taken out and coated in salt before being sealed in a container.
The white spirits help the salt penetrate the eggshells. About 45 days later, the eggs are ready to be steamed and served.
Beer was introduced to China in the early 20th century and quickly became popular. Its uses in cooking are many.
Dark beer is widely used in baking breads and cakes, while beer batter is considered by some to be essential for the best fish and chips.
The Chinese, too, have adapted the beverage to cooking.
One of the all-time favorites is beer duck, a dish that can be served either as a stew or as a base for cooking vegetables and tofu. After tossing pieces of duck in oil, pepper, scallions, ginger and garlic, beer is poured into the mix along with salt and soy sauce. The meat is then braised over a low heat. Fish, shrimp, pork and chicken can be cooked in a similar method.
When making marinated eggs, a can of beer, complemented with soy sauce, salt and sugar, serves as a good substitute for the more complex master stock.