Chinese Takeout is a bite-sized, monthly RADII feature that examines Chinese food from the inside out, by disentangling the (hi)stories behind a single dish or restaurant. Write to us if you have a suggestion or submission.
When PRC leader Xi Jinping visited the United States in 2015, the White House impressed Chinese netizens by serving huangjiu (黄酒; “yellow wine”), the less famous cousin of potent clear liquor baijiu (白酒). Yet while it may have been relatively novel on Pennsylvania Avenue, yellow wine has actually been around for over a thousand years longer, and its rich, fragrant flavor have popularized it around China not only for drinking, but for cooking as well.
Similar to how red and white wine are broad categories, the term “huangjiu” actually denotes a variety of fermented rice wines with different ingredients and fermentation methods. Among these, huangjiu’s birthplace — the southeastern Chinese city of Shaoxing — boasts the country’s most popular and arguably best kind.
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For that reason, flavoring dishes with huangjiu is deeply rooted within Shaoxing food culture. “I basically use yellow wine for every dish,” says 84-year-old local Lu Suqin, “especially when I cook fish and meat. It enhances the flavor of every dish.” As an integral part of Zhejiang cuisine — one of the eight famous culinary traditions of China, named for the province that Shaoxing sits within — Shaoxing cuisine specializes in freshwater fish and poultry, though lacks the sweetness that cooking from nearby Shanghai is characterized by.
At Banqiao (板桥), a tiny, family-owned restaurant in one of the many small towns within greater Shaoxing, the vivid flavors of dishes made with huangjiu have kept locals coming back since their opening day. Run by two generations of owners for over 30 years, this restaurant is still one of the most popular dining places in the community — a sure sign that when it comes to food, this family is doing something right.
Typical of many family-owned restaurants in China, Banqiao does not have any written menus. What you order depends on the daily inventory and how early in the day you show up. But whatever cooking style you prefer for your food — stir-fried, steamed, or slow-braised — the chef can most likely accommodate.
“Our guests feel at home when they eat at our restaurant,” says Yu Xiaoli, who runs the restaurant together with her husband. Here you can usually find her welcoming guests and taking orders, while he runs around the kitchen preparing ingredients for the chef.
“We are best known for our drunken shrimp and drunken crab; both are marinated in huangjiu,” explains Yu. “Huangjiu changes everything — it not only adds more flavor but also makes the dish more aromatic. We use it in almost all our dishes here: pork, beef, chicken, freshwater fish, most vegetable dishes — you name it.”
To make this boozy specialty, chefs submerge the central ingredient in a sauce made from huangjiu, baijiu, ginger, green onion, and a mixture of Chinese sauces and spices for several minutes, allowing the spectrum of flavors to shine through.
In the case of drunken shrimp (pictured top), the mellow, somewhat bitter taste of huangjiu offsets the dish’s fishiness, and on taking a bite, we find the meat is boiled to tender, pliant perfection.
Along with its slow fermentation process, which can take anywhere from 80 days to several years, huangjiu is also intended to be drunk slowly. “We do not take shots with huangjiu, nor do we rush to drink it,” says Lu, the 84-year-old Shaoxing local. “You take it one sip at a time. Just like life, take it easy, enjoy it, and experience every subtle flavor it has to offer.”
Indeed, huangjiu has taken its time, and over its 2,500 year history it hasn’t lost any of its appeal to the people of Shaoxing. And for diners that frequent neighborhood restaurants like Banqiao, the smell and taste of huangjiu will forever be synonymous with comfort and home.
All photos: Siyuan Meng
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