Monday, August 1, 2011

Scarlet rice wine of northern Fujian

(Note to my readers: sorry about the lapse in recipes lately... had carpal tunnel surgery on both hands in July, so while I've been cooking away, it's been a bit of a challenge to type. But be prepared for a deluge of new dishes in the weeks to come!)

Nothing symbolizes northern Fujian-style cooking more than its red wine lees, called either hongzao in Mandarin or ang chow in Fujianese. Made pretty much in the same as the Homemade Fermented Rice that we looked at a few months ago, this local concoction is both flavored and colored by a remarkable ingredient called red yeast rice -- or hongqumi -- a type of rice grain coated with the bacteria Monascus pupureus.

The Chinese have enjoyed the health benefits of this cholesterol-lowering bacteria for countless years, and the West has only recently started to pay attention to red yeast rice as a medicine, but few know how good it tastes when brewed the right way. In fact, this is so delicious that you could be easily forgiven if you made it just for its deep crimson hue and delicious winy aroma.

Red wine yeast
You sometimes can find it already fermented and ready to use in its paste form, where it will usually be located in the refrigerated section of a Chinese grocery store. However, if you enjoyed making your own Homemade Fermented Rice, this recipe will be a snap. It's pretty much the same recipe, just with a bit more water plus the red yeast rice.

The only unusual ingredient is that red yeast rice, but it is becoming more available nowadays in the dry goods section of a Chinese market, usually near the beans or herbs. Whenever you run across it, snag a bag and store it in the freezer or refrigerator along with any Chinese wine yeast balls that you have left over from your last wine-making session.

Again, the main requirement for success is that absolutely everything be spanking clean. Oil should never touch anything, so use only freshly cleaning utensils and containers. The glutinous rice and the red yeast rice need to be soaked ahead of time, which means that you should start this the evening before you plan to put everything together. 

The main problem here, as with the Homemade Fermented Rice and the Sweet Pickled Garlic Cloves, is that you will have to be patient. Months are needed to turn the rice into this aromatic seasoning, but you can keep it up on your shelf while it ferments, enjoying its color while it takes its sweet time to mature. 

You will be able to decant off the liquid after a couple of weeks, and this will also age into a nice cooking wine. The bright red lees (or solids) will store well in the refrigerator once the fermentation is complete, and the wine too will keep a long time -- even improving -- as it ages. Do note that commercial red wine lees are usually salted, so feel free to add a bit of salt if you don't plan on using it up quickly.

I've suggested making a relatively small amount of red wine lees, but if you already have worked with it and cook Fujian-style dishes often, the recipe is easily doubled. The wine is great for cooking, and as with just about anything alcoholic, it only improves with age. And be sure to make your own Fermented Bean Curd with it... life will never be the same!

Fujian's red wine lees
Hongzao  紅糟 
Northern Fujian
About 3 cups wine and about a pound of red wine lees

1 pound round sticky (a/k/a sweet or glutinous) rice (nuomi)
2 ounces red wine yeast rice (hongqumi)
Cooled, filtered boiled water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 Chinese wine yeast ball
1 tablespoon cornstarch

Steaming rice
1. Place the rice in a strainer, tossing out any bits of debris that you run across. Rinse the rice under tap water, and then place it in a medium work bowl. Cover the rice with cool tap water by about 2 inches. Leave the rice to soak for 8 hours, or overnight.

2. While the rice is soaking, place the red wine yeast rice in  a very clean 2-quart jar with a lid. Cover the rice with 3 cups cool, filtered water, add the sugar, and stir. Cover the jar and let it sit 8 hours or overnight to wake up the bacteria in the yeast.

3. The next morning, steam and rinse the rice as directed here

4. While the rice is steaming, place the wine yeast ball in a small bowl and barely cover it with cool, filtered boiled water so that it can soften. After the rice has been steamed and rinsed, smash the wine yeast ball with your fingers or a fork. Add the rice, the smooshed yeast ball and soaking water, and the cornstarch to the jar with the red wine yeast rice. Stir the ingredients together with a very clean wooden spoon. Cover the jar loosely so that carbon dioxide can escape but insects can't go in. Place the jar in a warm place as directed in the Homemade Rice Wine recipe, and stir it or shake it once a day for a week to evenly distribute the yeast and its food. 

5. After a few days, check the the jar. If it smells alcoholic and the rice has formed a raft that floats on top of the wine, remove the jar and place it in a cool area out of direct sunlight, but keep the lid only loosely screwed on.

Bubbling wine
6. When the rice has broken down and has formed a much thinner raft on top of the wine, it is time to strain out the solids. Place a few layers of very clean, fine cheesecloth in a very clean sieve over a bowl. Carefully ladle the rice and wine into the cheesecloth, giving the wine a chance to dribble down into the bowl before adding more. When all of the wine has decanted into the bowl, bring the corners of the cheesecloth together and tie the bundle. Place a small plate on top of the cheesecloth bundle and then put a pound can on top of the plate to weight the lees down and extract as much wine as possible. Cover everything with a clean towel to keep out insects, and leave the lees to slowly drip for a couple of hours. The lees should end up being moist but not wet and have the consistency of fairly dry mashed potatoes.

7. Empty the drained lees into a very clean jar, label it, cover the jar, and refrigerate. It will keep a very long time this way, but you can mix in a bit of salt if you want to keep it for more than a few months. The wine can be decanted into very clean bottles; discard any solids at the bottom of the bowl, or use them in any dish that calls for the red rice wine lees.