Sweet Rice Wine (甜米酒) for rainy days

Every time we make peng kueh, my grandma will say – IF we have jiu bing (rice leaven) we can make rice wine.

Of course prior to Covid, I didn’t give much thought about buying jiu bing. My mum never successfully procured it from the wet market or dried goods stalls and gran only buys it when she is in Malaysia (Penang) so we let the topic rest. Jiu bing is one of my grandmas most prized kitchen ingredients because she uses it to make Wa Ko Kueh a type of sweet steamed rice cake that is very soft, fluffy and slightly chewy. It is used in buddhist prayers as offerings because it is vegetarian, relatively “easy” to make and stores very well as a display. I have to say that my grandma’s Wa Ko Kueh is probably one of the best I’ve eaten, it is usually dyed pink, green or orange and has almost a snow-like texture, with a light elevating smell of rice (being made predominately from that grain).

There are many recipes online about how to make Wa Ko Kueh, or Bai Tang Gao. But the main aim of this post is to talk about the fundamental ingredient – Sweet Rice Wine or Jiu Niang.

Ask an average singaporean what Jiu Niang is and they probably wouldn’t know. But most people know about Korean makgeolli which is pretty much the same thing in terms of taste. Jiu Niang is a very traditional chinese rice wine drink made from 3 ingredients – Rhizopus oryzae and/or Aspergillus oryzae (jiu bing / rice leaven), glutinous rice, water. Interestingly, my grandma informed me that Rhizopus oryzae is the same mould used for tempeh making, so you could technically use rice leaven meant for jiu niang on soy beans and wrap it in banana leaves. It makes sense to me because what Rhizopus oryzae does is to break down starch (from soy bean / rice) into simple sugars, and based on what I’ve seen from the Jiu Niang brewing process, it forms white mycelium like those seen on tempeh. From the above, you would have gathered that there is no YEAST in Jiu Niang (only fungus which produces alcohol). However, people do introduce brewer’s yeast (and sugar) into their Jiu Niang at some stages of fermentation to speed up the alcohol production process.

Rice leaven comes in 2 forms, first as a hard white ball and second, in powdered form.

Unfortunately, it is very hard to find the first type of rice leaven in Singapore (we previously got ours from Penang) so I would recommend trying to get the powdered form. You can buy it from Shopee by searching “Alcohol Yeast” / “Rice Leaven” / “Fermented Rice Wine Alcohol Yeast”, eg links: https://shopee.sg/10-Bags-Alcohol-Yeast-Active-Dry-Yeast-Wine-Song-Glutinous-Rice-Koji-Powder-i.182890393.2907154517 (I am not sure why it is referred to as an yeast when it is a fungi). As for the glutinous rice, you can purchase it from any dried goods stall, wet market or supermarket.

Recipe

Ingredients

2 teaspoon of rice leaven

1 kg glutinous rice

1 cup cold water

Method

First, the glutinous rice needs to be washed 8 times. Then left to soak for 24 hours or until the rice breaks apart easily between two fingers.

Second, drain all the water and steam the rice in a steamer over the stove. When cooking glutinous rice, you do not need to add water into the rice dish. If the rice looks too dry over the course of cooking it, simply sprinkle some water over. After 20 minutes take the rice off the steamer. Then slowly mix in 1 cup of cold water until all the water is “absorbed” by the rice. At this point you should have plump perfect looking glutinous rice that is able to hold shape. Do not add too much water as it hinders fermentation and prevents you from shaping it into final form. Let rice cool down.

Third, start preparing a metal pot (with lid) and utensils (spoon) by washing everything thoroughly and ensuring there is no acid or oils in the jar as that will destroy all attempts at proper fermentation. Pour boiling water over all kitchen equipment and let cool at one side. *NOTE: some families are very particular about rice wine making, and only allow one family member to manage the process. There are some superstitions associated with the fermentation such as leaving a piece of unburnt black charcoal over the lid of the fermentation pot to chase away bad spirits (preventing the wine from spoiling), or avoiding saying rude or unhappy things near the pot.

Fourth, once glutinous rice is cooled, add it into the pot and mix in the rice leaven. Then, shape it into a well. Put on the lid and leave aside in a dark cool corner of your kitchen. As the days pass, the well will start filling with sweet alcohol (see below).

Between 1 – 2 days you should notice some bubbles forming in your glutinous rice, that is a good sign. On day 3, a white layer of mould will appear on your glutinous rice as the fungus colonises and breaks down the starch. Only be concerned when you spot black dots of mould on your rice, if that happens then just use a clean spoon (sterilised with hot water) to scoop it off. There should be a puddle of delicious sweet rice wine in the well by day 3 – 4. After that, something strange happens. The glutinous rice starts to loosen shape and the well disappears. This could be due to the aggressive bubbling activity from the rice leaven that dislodges the rice particles from their well shape. By day 5 you will notice a layer of glutinous rice floating above a hazy white liquid which is your rice wine. At this point you can harvest your rice wine by putting everything through a muslin cloth, straining out the liquid (rice wine) and keeping aside the glutinous rice sediments.

When my grandpa discovered that we were fermenting rice wine in our kitchen, he literally jumped from his seat and came to try some. Apparently it is his favourite drink and thankfully he approved of my brew. He told me that he used to buy fermented rice wine from his friend (who makes it at home) because he couldn’t find it in the supermarket or anywhere else in Singapore. Then insisted that we cook jiu zao rou or fermented rice pork for dinner.

Without going into too much detail, he basically browned the pork, then cut it into cubes. Fried the glutinous rice sediment with fermented beans and chilli in oil, then added in the pork cubes topped off by some water. This was left to boil down for 2 hours to rid it of the alcoholic taste from the fermented rice bits and to soften the pork cubes. As with most dishes that have fermentation elements, this was pack full of umami flavour, saltiness, sourness and a residual taste of the wine. Perfect for dipping with Wa Ko Kueh and a small cosy family dinner as the rains made their scheduled appearance again.

Hope this recipe inspires you to try something new this weekend.

Always,

J.

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