Shaoxing wine is an essential pantry item in any Chinese kitchen, but how many Singaporean Chinese have red glutinous rice wine (angzao) or lees (the by-product of the fermentation) in their pantries? I believe that one of the great pluses of being married is being privy to culinary secrets and recipes from another family.
My husband Wex’s grandmother is a fantastic cook, with repertoire spanning Peranakan, Fuzhou, Teochew and Hakka cuisines. One of her annual traditions is brewing her own red glutinous rice wine, and she puts her own spin on it by spiking the glutinous rice with Martell, which seems to be very popular with folks of her generation. Fermenting angzao is a process that seems more like an art than a science in Singapore, and it is one that is shrouded with mystery. There are so many superstitions (pantang) surrounding the process, such as not casting glances at the mixture as it is fermenting.
Recently, I’ve been seeing Singaporean cooks on Instagram preparing meals from the angzao and lees from WRiceWine, and raving about it. So who better to learn more about this ingredient that has seemingly fallen out of fashion than them? I emailed Danny Ng from W Rice Wine to talk to him about the history of angzao and its lees, and his family’s tradition of preparing the brew.
The difference between Shaoxing (Hua Tiao) wine and our angzao is… that the former is mass produced while ours is handcrafted in small batches. Shaoxing wine is one of the most well-known cooking wines and it often has a much stronger taste as it is used mostly for seasoning in the kitchen. On the other hand, our rice wine can be enjoyed on its own, as a condiment or in culinary cooking.
In Mainland China, angzao lees… is well-known and has been part of their culinary culture for the longest time, due to its nutritional content and aroma. A lot of Chinese households have their own stash of wine lees for use in their everyday cooking, especially as marinades in dishes with pork, fish and chicken. In Taiwan, there is a popular snack called Red Yeast Meat Ball Dumplings in Jiufen.
Though drinkers of wine, beer and spirits, drinking glutinous rice wine is not part of our culture because… of a lack of awareness. Many people associate rice wine with cooking due to the much stronger taste and the salt and other additives that come from the manufactured variety. However, a brew like ours, which is made the traditional way with no salt or additives boasts a more fragrant, mellow and mature fragrance.
Restaurants or hawkers that are offering food made with Chinese rice wine/ lees in Singapore… are not many in number. There are only a handful like Lee Do Restaurant that specializes in Fuzhou cuisine and One Bowl Restaurant & Bar along Jalan Sultan road.
Homemade rice wine and the ones on the shelf are vastly different because… store-bought rice wine has preservatives added due to certain import/ export food requirements and supply chain. Adding preservatives or additives will cloud the fresh flavor and influence the nutritional benefits of the wine and lees.
Ways to enjoy rice wine and lees are… manifold! The most common way of using the rice wine would be for culinary purposes such as stir-fried, braised or steamed dishes. One can also enjoy the fragrant and aromatic taste of our premium rice wine by sipping on it neat (best serve chilled). For the wine lees, the most well-known dish would be the heritage dish of wine lees chicken with vermicelli (红糟鸡面线). You can also use it to marinate meats.
Wine lees is a health tonic for… the elderly and ladies going through confinement. Through the fermentation process, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), lactic acid, oligosaccharides and statins are produced. These have the effect of lowering blood pressure, relieving anxiety, improving immune system function and reducing inflammation. The wine lees are the concentrated essence of the brew, and are considered especially beneficial to reduce cramps in ladies going through confinement, when they consume it postpartum.
The recipe that we use… is an heirloom recipe that has been handed down for generations, with methods that are akin to what many other traditional artisans and craftsmen employ in olden days China. There are only 3 ingredients: glutinous rice, natural red yeast and purified water – there are no salt nor additives like gluten or wheat. We also age our brew in traditional clay barrels.
I decided to step forward to continue the tradition… as a way of honoring my grandparents. My grandfather and grandmother have been making the rice wine together ever since they landed on the shores of Singapore back in the 1930s. Through the years, the yearly affair of selecting the finest glutinous rice grains, steaming them and fermenting them in the traditional clay barrels has never ceased.
As they became older, the craft of rice wine making was passed on to the next generation, my mom (Mdm Sharon Ng). Every year, we would bring the harvest back to them for taste review, quality control and approval in that sense. When my grandfather passed on in 2017, we realized that the baton has been passed to us to step forward to continue the tradition, the craft and the dedication to the making of the finest rice wine for the past decades. My mom is the boss, and I help with the branding, marketing and set up et cetera.
Danny’s grandfather’s landing permit (left) and Danny’s Grandmother having her photo taken in front of shophouse (right) (Photo: W Rice Wine)
As an adult who only discovered the joys of his family’s heritage food later in life… I now have a deeper appreciation of the heritage and roots that are unique to our family, and more importantly integral to our identity as Singaporeans. All these artisanal crafts and skilled trades that our grandparents brought along with them when they came to the shores of Nanyang will be lost if we do not seek to preserve and protect them.
Traditional packaging (left) and WRiceWine’s packaging for celebratory gifting (right). (Photo: WRice Wine)
Our packaging and branding of the product… was strategically modern because we feel that branding is key to sharing, to reconnect this part of our heritage with younger Singaporeans. It also is packaged like a gift, as for many years in ancient history of China, rice wine has been often gifted as a toast to the celebration of life, health and longevity. Thus, it makes a good gift for all occasions, be it a celebration of a newborn or during Chinese New Year festivities.
Some pantang (superstitions) that shrouds the process of fermentation are… do not disturb. Do not touch. Do not move it. Do not look into it. Do not talk about it. Leave it in that quiet corner.
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