Subtle, versatile and easy homemade white or black rice wine

Fermented sweet rice wine

Let’s get this July starting well by preparing and enjoying this sweet, low alcohol drink, right ? It may even become the star of your cocktail hours, who knows !

I labelled it as easy because, going against the common belief that wine making is a sophisticated process, this very one is within anyone’s reach. Indeed, it requires no distillation or long maturing time : it’s all about fermenting glutinous rice (aka sticky rice), yielding what the Chinese call jiǔ niàng and the Japanese amazake.

Glutinous rice aka sticky or sweet rice

The natural sweetness of this well-nicknamed « sweet rice » gets enhanced through the activity of a specific wine yeast, thus turning into alcohol after a few days.

However weird this may sound, over time I came to know I have a liking for fermented foods, be they veggies or dairy products. So, no surprise I loved this one too, even though I’m not very into alcoholic beverages. The point is that its alcohol-content is nearly as low as a soft drink’s, hardly noticeably actually. But given how seldom I do have alcohol, hence how much I endure its effect, I do get a slight dizzy feeling from it, which is enough for me. And believe me, you shouldn’t need more either to appreciate to the fullest this refreshing, pleasant tasting wine !

By the way, while I’ve introduced it as a drink, it is actually rather to be eaten, similar to a thin porridge (at least in Chinese culture).

Fermented glutinous rice

In the last jar of store-bought fermented rice that I purchased, it was complemented with some goji berries – nice to eat as it was, so you can make the same with homemade !

I owe a lot to two of my blogging friends for putting together this post, one of them having reminded me that this wine could be homemade, the other that rice wines are definitely a must-have. I hesitated to write about this though, both because several good recipes are already to be found on the Web and since I’m always embarrassed to present recipes that are so far from belonging to a family cooking inheritance… But in the course of my – many – trials, this recipe had revealed itself more challenging than I expected : I realized that as simple as the concept might be, it required some practises to know the « tricks ». That’s why I finally thought it might be useful to share my observations, so as to add to the general knowledge about this treat. Rather than calling a recipe, let’s say it’s about understanding how to have it working in the framework of your kitchen, with your own tools.

Plus, once the basic method had been overtaken I allowed myself some fanciness, lending myself to some experiments that I found worthy to tell about.

Fragrant black glutinous rice

My Chinese blogging friend Margot having advised me that it was also on sale, I successfully tried to make it with black glutinous rice, and have been pleasantly surprised by this nearly « full bodied » wine, more resembling a « real » alcoholic beverage.

Osmanthus flowers

I also enjoyed much the fermented white rice wine with added taste from the delicate osmanthus (桂花 guìhuā) flowers, of which fragrance reminds me slightly of apricot’s or mango’s and which are often associated to Chinese sweets and sweet soups, especially those including fermented rice.

After all, to be fair, I’ve appreciated to experience how you get different results with different yeasts as well as different soaking, cooking, resting times.

Regarding yeast, I could purchase two kinds in North of France’s Asian shopping places.

Distiller's yeasts for fermented glutinous rice wine

The one on the left is the more widely available and used, and to me, it gives better results, even though the fermentation process takes a bit longer. The one on the right, slightly more greyish and coming sometimes in big patties rather than these little ones, looks less processed, so I don’t even know if it may be found elsewhere than where it was imported from by my grocery ; anyway, it yields a more sugary fermented rice (too much to me), albeit faster and surer.

Here are some other important things to remember to save yourself from the most easily avoidable failures. First, you want to have all the ustensils, dishes, containers you use thoroughly cleaned and use only a pure water to soak, cook, ferment the rice. Second, the rice is to be cooked through without being soggy ; to do so, you basically only need to cook the rice as you would plain one. For me, as I don’t have a rice cooker, it means in my electronic steamer, with some water, so that it’s boiled with less water than for regular cooking (as steaming adds to the water content). I took inspiration of it to present you a well-working method. By the way, it is the most suitable for black glutinous rice, which is drier and needs to soak up more water to be able to ferment. But, if unlike me you have a rice cooker, then I urge you to go for it ! Or, you may also steam, which is the more traditional method and works too, at least with white rice. Then, as to the fermentation, you’ve just to seek a balance : too much water causes mold to form just as well as a too warm atmosphere, a too slow fermentation launch, too much yeast, a too open or too airtight container…

But though at the beginning I saw molds appearing as the sign that it went wrong, I realized that I shouldn’t worry so much about that. When I asked one of the storekeepers of my Chinese grocery about it, this lady nearly mocked me, saying that this involved mold just as cheese making does, and that I just needed to remove the top to enjoy the good part staying underneath. So, even though it’s better to make all we can to keep this from happening, main evidence is the taste : if it is bad, it went wrong. Otherwise, it’s fine and you just need to discard the spoiled grains, saving the more than can be, especially the wine (for instance, I haven’t found out yet how to avoid molds on black rice, but the wine does taste good). All depends on how fussy you are about that… My French grandma used to let grow on purpose molds over her goat cheese, so I guess I’m jaded enough from this point of vue to handle this (don’t get me wrong, I can’t stand rottenness, insomuch that seeing a tiny weeny worm nearly causes me a heart attack) ! Anyway, I assure you I never got sick ever since I’ve been making this.

Though rice wine was not really familiar to my culture and cooking habits, this one has quickly become one of my staples, because there’s more to it than being a nice drink. Ever since I know how to make it, I try to always store some in the fridge, ready to use in almost endless ways : as a seasoning for some Chinese stir-fried dishes and soups (I also use it sometimes as a substitute for mirin, though the tastes are obviously different), as a salty sweet snack (thinned down with water, heated and completed with a poached egg) or even as a base for a sweet soup, with those little sticky rice balls called « tang yuan » (made of sticky rice flour). But my favorite use is no contest in bread dough, sort of like sourdough ; these english-muffin looking small buns aren’t only lovely, but also super tasty (credit to my abovementioned friend Margot) !

Fermented rice buns

Take note that making these buns is a great use for leftover rice grains in case you prefer drinking the wine filtered. To make them, you only need to mash, pond or process the fermented rice to a paste (250 gr. would yield about 10 buns), add enough AP flour (as to me, the ratio is typically of 1 :1 but it depends on the liquid amount of your fermented rice) to form a smooth and firm dough (that keeps being a bit sticky though). I like to use about half self-raising flour to help fluffing up the buns. Set aside the dough to rest in a warm enough place for a few hours ; it’s ok if it doesn’t raise much. If you didn’t use self-raising flour, work in a bit of baking powder (about 1 tsp for a dough based on 250 gr. fermented rice) before shaping. With floured hands, tear the dough into pieces (the size of a golf ball) and shape them neatly into balls before placing them in a non-stick pan, over low heat. Leave room between the buns and flatten them lightly with your palm ; once they’re browned on one side, turn them over and cook until they’re browned on the other side. Before cooking, you may fill them like steamed buns (with red bean paste, black sesame paste or any other filling of your choice) or spread / garnish them after cooking, but I enjoy them the most plain, when they’re still a bit warm… They would keep a few days in the fridge ; reheat them in a pan or a toaster / toaster oven by preference.

Practical notes :

The two kinds of glutinous rices would easily be found on sale in Asian groceries, Chinese ones to be specific ; organic food shops and some hypermarkets might stock white glutinous rice, too.

Search Chinese groceries for the yeast too, but I think that at worst, you can purchase it from online Asian groceries. By the way, keep in mind that the Japanese koji is basically the same as this Chinese jiuqu that I used.

Dried goji berries are now widely available almost everywhere and at least in organic food shops. As for the osmanthus flowers, I had to order them on the Net, but if you’re living in a big city, you should not have the same supply problem ; look for them at Chinese groceries or shops selling ingredients for teas and herbal remedies, for instance.

Fermented sweet rice wine

Ingredients :

Yields about 2 cups (500 ml) fermented rice, including less than 1 cup (about 200 ml) wine.

  • 1 cup (~ 200 gr.) white glutinous rice (aka sweet rice) or black glutinous rice
  • 1/8 distiller’s yeast ball or 3 small flat cakes distiller’s yeast (that is at least few pinches : it would work anyway yet take slightly more time)
  • more or less 1 1,5 L unopened bottle spring water (adjust to needs)
  • 1 tsp dried goji berries (wolfberries) or osmanthus flowers (optional)

Equipment needed :

  • any kind of device for steaming (including a bamboo steaming basket with a lid plus a suiting wok or pot) OR a rice cooker
  • a steamproof dish fitting the steaming material OR a clean cloth (cheesecloth, kitchen towel, large gauze…)
  • a pair of chopsticks OR spatula/spoon (but chopsticks are definitely more convenient)
  • an airtight container (glass or metal preferred to plastic – lucky me, I got along with my electronic steamer a metallic rice steaming bowl which has a suiting plastic lid, so that’s what I use) OR a large bowl
  • mortar and pestle OR a rolling pin
  • a fine sieve /strainer
  • a kettle or large pot to fill with tap water for sterilization
  • a jar (at least half-pint large) (optional)

Method :

How to prepare fermented glutinous rice wines

White rice wine, method 1 {« steam-boiling »}

If not made ahead, start by washing all the equipment with warm water and detergent.

Bring a generous amount of water to the boil in the kettle or pot and thoroughly scald each dish and tool.

What I’m used to do is to wash and scald all pieces of my electronic steamer, put all other things I need into it and turn it on for 10 mns or so.  But if you can’t do so, or in case there are some plastic pieces (such as the lid of my steamer’s rice bowl) or too large pieces, it’s okay to just rinse them under boiling water.

Air dry the whole by having them sitting on a very clean work surface.

Put the rice into the clean strainer and rinse it quickly under running water, or (at best) with some of the spring water, if you don’t mind using much.

Transfer it to the steamproof dish and cover with 1 cup (250 ml) spring water.

Fill the bottom of your steaming device or wok/pot with enough spring water, and turn on the heat.

As the water boils, place the steaming rack or basket over it, with the steamproof dish inside, and cover.

Allow to steam for 30 mns, until all water has been soaked up and the rice looks plump.

In the meantime, grind the yeast to a fine powder with the mortar and pestle and set aside.

Using the clean chopsticks, transfer the cooked rice to the airtight container or bowl and let it cool down for 5 mns.

Stir it quickly and let it cool again for 5 mns. In the meantime, scald again the chopsticks to make sure they remain clean.

Once the rice has reached a lukewarm temperature (you should be able to estimate it by putting your palm a few centimeters above : if too much warmth is perceptible, it means the rice could still burn the yeast), sprinkle some of the powdered yeast on top of the rice and mix it into it, stirring with the chopsticks. Add some more yeast and stir again, repeating this until no yeast remains. If the rice is somewhat dry and the grains tend to stick together, add just enough spring water to be able to break up the lumps.

Using the chopsticks, even out the surface of the rice and create a hole in the middle, which enables to check the progress of fermentation (that’s at least what I think it’s made for).

Close the dish, using the suiting lid or cling wrap in case it is a simple bowl. Place it in a shaded place that’s not too cool nor too warm, such as a switched off oven (most of the times, I let it in my cooled, switched off steamer). In winter, I assume you’d better leave it in a warmer place (stove top if there’s room enough, close to a radiator…) so that the fermentation starts fast enough.

Do not open it too often, first because there’s no point doing it (I can tell you in full knowledge of the cause : you won’t see the work of yeast in progress ;)), plus because we carry so much bacteria that each contact represents a new occasion of contamination ! That’s to say it would be enough to check it once a day.

2 to 3 days later it should be fine, which basically means the rice loosens from the sides of the dish, some liquid has formed at the bottom, and the smell has turned sweetish, slightly alcoholic (but it depends on the yeast that has been used : it might have a sour edge at this stage – no worries though, it would get better then).

If you see some fuzz here and there, do not discard the whole but take a scalded spoon and remove spoonfuls of rice where those molds appeared. If the molds look rather dark and top the rice overall, then you should throw it away and start all over again.

Stir the rice a little in order to separate the grains (remember to use scalded chopsticks or spoon), then put it into the previously sterilized jar if you like better not to leave it in the dish where it fermented (which is my preference), liquid and grains together. You can filter it if you don’t plan to eat the rice, but it would be a pity especially as a part of the fermentation still occurs in the fridge. If you want a flavouring ingredient to infuse into the wine, such as goji berries or osmanthus (or whatever you like), it’s also time to add it.

Close the jar and put it aside in the fridge. Once chilled, you might enjoy it straight away but its taste would improve in the course of the upcoming days, and it would keep well up to several weeks. Fermentation being basically a random process, you might feel it turns out slightly sparkling but you don’t have to worry about it, at least if it suits your taste. However, watch for the sugar content’s increase over time, which could become unpleasant, and even unbearable for those who hardly have a sweet tooth. That’s why I make fermented wine by small batches only, which I urge you to do too (especially if you’re making for the first time).

Everytime you’ll want to have or use some of the fermented rice wine, take care of using a scalded spoon to scoop out the needed amount from the jar. If you like to enjoy it as a « normal » drink, you may use a sieve to filter it or rather simply pour the liquid directly from the jar to the cups or glasses, holding and pressing slightly the grains with the back of a spoon to avoid them from slipping away while squeezing out some of their juices. Anyway, once filtered, it would have a cloudy appearance, but would clarify if you let it sit a while in the fridge before drinking.

White glutinous rice, method 1 tweaked {with a rice cooker}

Proceed the same way as in method 1 up to rinsing the rice, then put it into your rice cooker and cook with the suiting amount of water according to the manufacturer’s directions.

Follow method 1 for everything that comes afterwards.

White glutinous rice, method 2 {steamed}

The day before, rinse the rice in a clean and scalded sieve as mentioned in method 1, then put it into a scalded bowl with spring water to cover. Set it aside to soak overnight (or at least 5 hours on the very day you make the fermented rice).

Prepare the material as described in method 1. If you’re using a bamboo steaming basket and a cloth, it’s more convenient to lay the latter directly in the basket to scald and air dry it.

Drain the rice and put it directly into the steaming basket lined with the cloth.

Like in method 1, boil spring water in a wok or pot or in the suiting part of your steaming device, then set the steaming basket over it and cover.

Steam for 15 mns, then uncover and pour 1/2 to 1 cup (125-250 ml) over the rice, making sure to moisten it evenly but without disturbing it.

Cover again and steam for 15 mns more.

During the steaming time, grind the yeast as mentioned in method one.

When 30 mns steaming are over, use clean chopsticks to pick up a few grains of rice and check for doneness. If they aren’t tender enough, steam for 5-10 mns more. Don’t forget to scald the chopsticks once more afterwards.

Get back to method 1 for following steps.

Black glutinous rice

Fermented black glutinous rice

Proceed the same way than in method 1, up to rinsing the rice.

Place it into the steamproof dish and add 1 1/2 cups (375 ml) spring water.

Steam according to abovementioned instructions, but for 45 minutes. Grind the yeast in the mortar.

After the rice has been cooked, do the same as in method 1 (except you shouldn’t need any added water to mix the yeast into the rice). Please take note that wood tools may get a purple hue from the rice, so you’d better use metallic ones to handle it (unless you don’t care !).

Ferment the black rice for a slightly longer time than white one (say, 3 to 4 days), and once the wine has formed at the bottom, remove the upper half part (which would most likely be covered with a pale mold) with a scalded spoon.

Give a quick stir to the rice, transfer it to a jar (again with a scalded spoon) like described above, and refrigerate.

Enjoy by preference filtered, as a drink.

Fermented black glutinous rice wine

Doesn’t it look like red wine ? Enjoy, but please drink responsibly !

3 réflexions sur “Subtle, versatile and easy homemade white or black rice wine

  1. Pingback: Vin de riz blanc ou noir maison – facile, subtil et utile |

  2. Ah! This is so genius and well-researched! What an interesting read; even for someone who knows Chinese cooking and how often rice wine is used, I learned a lot from this post. I’ve never actually considered making my own, but you make it sound very manageable. Thanks so much for this post!

    • Thank you so much Irina, I’m so flattered (sorry for this belated answer, I got completely out of order lately because of a new job) !
      Glad to learn, especially from you, that this helped and I did not talk nonsense ! I always feel like walking on eggshells when I write about Chinese cooking…
      And honestly, I wouldn’t be making it every single day (mostly because I’m not the patient kind) but it is even much easier than it appears in this article. Hope it would turn out well for you too if you decide to have a go some day !

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