While shaoxing rice wine is ubiquitous on the Woks of Life and one of our 10 Essential Chinese Pantry Ingredients, what about the clear Chinese rice wine (mǐ jiǔ, 米酒) nearby on the market shelf?
When should clear rice wine be used instead of Shaoxing wine? Where can you purchase it? How should it be stored? In this article, we’ll review all that and more.
What is Chinese Rice Wine (mijiu, 米酒)?
Chinese rice wine, or mi jiu (literally: rice wine), is made from glutinous rice (aka sticky rice). It can be clear and colorless, light yellow, or dark brown in color, and generally has an alcohol content ranging from 12-20%.
It is a sub-type of huang jiu (黄酒; literally: yellow wine), which is a category of Chinese alcoholic beverages made from rice, sorghum, millet, or wheat and a jiu qu liquor fermentation starter.
While the most famous variety comes from Shaoxing (read more about Shaoxing wine), mijiu is made and used all over China, both as a beverage and for cooking.
How Is It Used?
Just like using wine in Western dishes, Chinese rice wine adds depth and flavor complexity to dishes. It’s used frequently in marinades and sauces, and to deglaze intensely hot woks during the stir-frying process. This method helps to cook off any alcoholic edge and create that highly sought-after wok hay (breath of the wok) flavor. There are even some varieties that people drink, though we have not seen any outside of China.
We would NOT recommend drinking any of the wines you find at Asian grocery stores! These wines often have salt added to avoid an alcohol tax, which makes them briny and much more suited to cooking than drinking.
That said, the common cooking advice of, “don’t cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink” does not apply here. While this cooking wine may not be pleasing to the palette by itself, it adds an excellent and crucial flavor to many Chinese dishes.
There’s an important distinction between Shaoxing rice wine, which we call for most often in our recipes, and clear rice wine, which is colorless and resembles water.
Clear wine has a clearer and purer taste than the Shaoxing wine we use in most of our recipes. It’s better suited to delicate steamed dishes, seafood, and fish. However, we use Shaoxing wine so often in our cooking that it has become our automatic go-to. That’s why you rarely see clear mi jiu here on The Woks of Life.
Buying & Storing
Find clear mi jiu near the other cooking wines in Chinese grocery stores, usually near the sauce aisle. Sometimes it is labeled with this spelling: michiu.
Keep the bottle well sealed and store it in a cool, dry place like your pantry.
Substitutions for Chinese Rice Wine
When it comes to cooking wine, many readers ask about substitutions.
Our answer is that there is no true substitute for the unique flavor of Chinese rice wine. If you have a Chinese market anywhere near you, get your hands on some. You can also find it online. It really is worth the effort for authenticity in your Chinese cooking.
That said, if you can’t find it locally, you can substitute a dry cooking sherry. You can also try other types, but be aware that drinkable rice wines will be quite a bit sweeter. You’ll have to adjust your recipe to compensate for the extra sugar in the wine, or you may settle for the fact that substitutes simply will not work for some dishes.
Another question that comes up is if mirin (sweet Japanese cooking wine) can be substituted for Shaoxing rice wine. The answer is usually no. Mirin is quite sweet and has a distinct flavor that can overpower other flavors. Of course, that’s ok if that’s your intention. Or if you really enjoy that flavor. However, if you want the authentic taste of a Chinese dish, save the mirin for Japanese recipes.
If you can’t consume alcohol for health, religious, or personal reasons, the most common non-alcoholic substitution we recommend for Shaoxing wine in a stir-fry or sauce application (in amounts equal to or less than 2 tablespoons) is chicken, mushroom, or vegetable stock.
An important note: we often get questions about whether rice wine vinegar is a good substitution for rice wine and vice versa. This is probably because rice vinegar is readily available in many supermarkets these days, and is also therefore pretty recognizable. Though rice vinegar is made from fermented rice wine, they are NOT good substitutions for each other. They have completely different flavor profiles. They’re as different as red wine vs. red wine vinegar!
If you have further questions about this ingredient let us know in the comments––we try to answer every single one.