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Chinese Cooking Wine
I did something illegal the other day. I bought a $3 bottle of Chinese cooking wine. I know it was illegal because it was handed to me in a brown paper wrapper. The store owner told me “if anyone asks where you got it, say it fell off a truck.”

This is ridiculous. Chinese cooking wine is a basic ingredient for sauces and marinades. It is common to Chinese cooking but it is also excellent for other cuisines.

Chinese cooking wine is made from alcohol, water and salt. The alcohol burns off in the cooking. Except for the salt, it has almost no flavour on its own. This makes it a perfect mediator. It enhances other flavours. Try mixing it with soy sauce and sugar for a braised Chinese beef as in the recipe below; or blend it into a paste of crushed dried herbs, salt, pepper and fresh garlic to marinate a leg of lamb.

There are several brands—Pearl River, Pagoda, Double Happiness, Golden Star—and what they all have in common is that you are not supposed to be able to buy them in Quebec.

Our food stores can get permits to sell wine and beer, but Chinese cooking wines have at least 17% alcohol, well above the limit. However, go into any gourmet food store and look at the alcohol based flavourings or fruits macerated in brandy. These bottles have plenty of booze, but ask for Chinese cooking wine? You won’t find a drop. Even worse, it is not sold by the SAQ. Drunk straight, it tastes like sea water.

Many recipes suggest using sherry instead of Chinese cooking wine. Aside from being much more expensive, sherry has its own wonderful flavour, a delicious nuttiness that is too strong for many dishes. There is also Japanese cooking sake—Mitsukan is a good brand—on the shelves of Korean grocery stores. It is expensive and has a high alcohol content, 14%, but it also contains wheat extracts and corn syrup. It tastes like a sweet cheap sake.

The best replacement is a simple dry white wine with an extra pinch of salt.

While not advertised, Chinese cooking wine is available. You might see it on the shelf or you might have to make friends with a Chinese grocer and ask if there is some Pearl River or Pagoda under the counter. Otherwise, next time you in Ottawa, drop by one of the stores in our capital’s Chinatown, such as Asia Market or Kow Loon. One clerk said “everyone sells it here.”

This recipe is adapted from The Cooking of China in the Time Life series: Foods of the World. Cut a kilo stewing beef into thumb-sized cubes. Heat a medium sized wok or pot. Add a little oil. When very hot, brown the beef a few cubes at a time, removing them as they are done. After all are done, put the meat back in the pan. Mix in a cup of water, a quarter cup each of of soy sauce and Chinese cooking wine (or dry white wine and a pinch of salt) and a tablespoon of sugar. Bring this to a boil. Reduce the heat to simmer and cover the pan. Let this cook for 1 to 2 hours. Stir a few times to keep the meat from sticking to the pan. The liquid will reduce to about 1/2 a cup. Spinkle finely chopped scallions (green onions) on top and serve rice on the side.

© Barry Lazar 2000 Email Flavourguy

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