Wine lees 酒糟 are the by-product of wine making. They are found in abundance in the wine making country of Jiangnan and the thrifty winemakers have not let these distiller’s grain go to waste. Over the course of a few thousand years, making food with wine lees have become an art on its own.
Origins of the wine marinades
Marinating with wine lees originated during the Warring States and flourished in the Southern Song Dynasty. It was used by the common folks of Jiangnan, supposedly, for prolonging the lifespan of fresh food. Non-fictional texts, like “Menus from the Garden of Contentment” (1792) and fictional classics like “Dream of Red Mansions” (1791 ed.) have many mentions of different wine marinated dishes. Like this paragraph from the erotic novel “Golden Lotus” (1617), “The room was decorated with the finest Chinese ceramics of blue and white, a delicious plate of steamed wine marinated Reeves shad was brought in – the aroma filled the air, the flesh of the fish melted in the mouth, even the bones were fragrant.” (Chapter 34 “Presenting gift for a favour, conspiracy in the back chamber”)
Wine marinated food dated back to Qin Dynasty but it was first recorded in the “Songs of Chu” (c 500 BC). It gained prominence during the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), the capital city of Lin’an had stores selling these goods like drunken abalone, drunken lamb shanks, drunken crabs, drunken pig face. During the Qing Dynasty, in addition to the commercial production, the common households were making them at home. In the “Dream of Red Mansions” written by Qing writer Cao Xueqin (1715-1763), the delicate taste of drunken goose web and marinated quails were mentioned. In the “Menus from the Garden of Contentment”, Qing poet Yuan Mei (1716-1797) wrote about drunken meat, chicken and turtle.
Cooking with wine lees
这是黄酒之乡绍兴食客发明的一种精致考究的吃法，按说现杀的鸡鸭已是美味，经糟制之后，更可以去荤腥提香味，酒糟的浓香和调料的咸鲜进入“肉体”之后，使得肉质别有风味，皮脆骨鲜，紧致嚼劲，并且糟香入骨，堪称每个毛孔都很鲜美。 由于调料都源于酒，做法也相似，当地就把它们称为“糟醉一家”。据说周代八珍  中的渍就是用酒糟浸渍的牛羊肉。 那一股若有若无、有酒香无酒味的特殊的糟香，令人闻香而至，胃口大开。古人曾夸张地形容：“入口之物，皆可糟之。” 难怪南宋大诗人陆游吃过糟鸡后留下“糟鸡最知名，美不数鱼蟹”的赞词。
Home of the Chinese yellow wine, Shaoxing gourmands invented an intricate way of enhancing food flavours. While freshness is good, wine marinades can enhance the flavours and remove the gaminess of the poultry. The aroma and the savoury of the wine lees permeate throughout the birds right into the bones into every crevice. The meat firms up and inherit a distinctive flavour, and the skin is crisp and fresh. Since the seasonings are all derived from wine, the techniques of using wine lees and wine are similar, and the locals use the two interchangeably. The “Eight Treasures” described in the Zhou dynasty text included a dish of beef and mutton imbibed with distiller’s grains. The unique aroma of the wine marinade brings out the appetite of everyone. The ancients once exaggerated , “All things that can be eaten can be marinated with wine.” It is no wonder that the Southern Song poet Lu You (1125-1210) after eating drunken chicken left the praise that “the drunken chicken is most well-known, even more delicious than fish and crab.”
“Wine marinade” is similar to “drunk”. The seasonings are all derived from wine making. The technique is similar, so the terms are used interchangeably. Jiangnan has been a rice producing area since ancient times and is also the hometown of yellow wine. In addition to the numerous wineries, commoners have the habit of making rice wine. Rice wine is commonly known as “old white wine”, by adding a little red glutinous rice it becomes a yellow wine. After the autumn harvest, the grain enters the warehouse, and every household will gradually brew rice wine. When there is more wine, there’s abundant supply of distiller’s grains.
In addition to the seasonal changes, the ingredient seemed to reflect the wealth of an era. Southern Song dynasty had a very strong economy, the people were affluent, and “high-end” ingredients such as “drunken abalone, lamb shank and crab” are mentioned in many literary works of that time. During the period of Qing poet Yuan Mei, the conditions were worse, only “drunken meat, chicken and turtle” were served; “Dream of Red Mansions” was at the beginning of Qianlong golden era, and “drunken goose web, quail” were the flavours of the day. A while ago, I was treated to a really expensive pot of drunken goods in local restaurant in Shanghai. It came in an elaborate decorated ceramic pottery and looked exquisite. When you opened the cover, it contained scallops, sea cucumber, tiger prawn, etc. It was more accurate to call “drunken eight treasures”, and the taste was certainly good.
There are wine marinated raw and cooked ingredients. It takes a longer time to marinate raw ingredients, which is actually “cooking” the raw or half-cooked ingredients like eggs and tofu in saline and wine lees. Most of these raw marinates occur in the northern regions of China where there is a tradition of use Baijiu for braising liquid. This salt-wine brine can be used repeatedly as long as the weather is cold, it actually intensify the flavours. However, because of the large amount of salt added, the dishes are mostly salty and unsatisfactory. I used to get it, but most of them are not appetising.
江南是鱼米之乡，盛产黄酒。不彻底的发酵让酒糟产量大，且酒精、糖、氨基酸含量高，风味更佳。用黄酒糟腌浸烧熟冷却的各色原料，时间不过几个小时，称为“熟糟”，物料由此被“保鲜”起来，味鲜、凉爽、耐嚼，那一股若有若无、有酒香无酒味的特殊的糟香，令人闻香而至，胃口大开。陆文夫  说“糟货之味比酒更醇厚，比酱更清淡，是一种阅尽沧桑后的淡泊，同时又自然地带有一种老于世故的深沉回味”，这话有点夸张，不过醇厚与清淡并存，淡泊与深沉并济，确实是对于糟的精到描述。
Jiangnan is the land of agricultural abundance, rich in production of yellow wine. Incomplete fermentation allows the large production of distiller’s grains that have high alcohol, sugar and amino acid contents, thus a richer flavour. Picking and simmering the dried raw materials with yellow distiller’s grains for a few hours, a process called “ripening the lees”, the materials are “preserved” in their best state with the special wine lees aroma. Gourmet writer Lu Wenfu once said, “the taste of drunken goods is more mellow than wine, lighter than sauce, it is a kind of indifference after reading the vicissitudes of life, and naturally has a deep aftertaste of the old world.” This is a bit exaggerated, but coexisting with mellow and light, indifference and depth, it is indeed a spot-on description of the drunken goods.
The key to ripening is the “simmering the braise”. The standard for Shanghai people to judge the braise is whether it is “correct” and/or “elegant”. Correctness, meaning that the taste is strong, in addition to the lees as the main ingredient, require addition of a precise amount of yellow wine, salt, bay leaf and cinnamon to stimulate the taste of the distiller’s grains; Elegance, meaning the aroma is fresh, one needs to add sugar, dried Mandarin orange peel, sweet-scented osmanthus to neutralise the taste of distiller’s grains. After all the flavours are complete, they cannot be heated or boiled. Otherwise, the alcohol will evaporate and they become a bowl of salt water. The so-called “simmering” means that low heat, long-term soaking and slow simmering to let the final taste to blend, then it is considered a qualified braise.
Food made from wine lees
The actual cooking process is much easier from here. The wine marinated edamame is the best appetiser to go with drinks, there’s no other. The edamame that is blanched quickly n boiling water, it cannot be simmered. It is directly immersed in the braising liquid after the blanching. After a few hours of marination, it is ready to be served and it looked like it has just been plucked. Taking one, the shell is brittle yet tough, the edamame is crunchy and smooth, the fragrance of the wine has penetrated into the inside of the beans. Compared to the five-spiced peanuts, the wine marinated edamame has a subtle yet more complex flavour profile.
Drunken snails are also beautiful, the snails are boiled with scallion ginger water and yellow wine, immersed in the wine marinade and cooled before serving. One can use the toothpicks to pick out the meat. The texture is fresh and chewy, and it is more flavourful than stir-fry with fermented beans (another common way of cooking the snails).
Drunken chicken is of course the piece de resistance. The poached chicken has a nice yellow skin, tender meat, cooked ala minute and after soaking in the wine marinade, the chicken gets a “facelift” and looked even more appetising than before. There’s the scent of wine in every bite. Although there is a risk of being booked for drunk driving after a meal, it doesn’t matter anymore with the deliciousness in front of you. It is the best time to include chicken gizzards, chicken feet, chicken hearts and the likes of other organs into the marinade, and when they are ready, slice the organs and serve with the chicken as an appetiser. The flavoursome combination is beyond description.
What kept the Shanghainese craving for is still the pot of “drunken goods“. It contains pork belly, pig liver, pig trotters and pork belly together with ham, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, gluten and other “delicacies”. Slowly cook for a few hours in the pot until the content is soft. Finally, turn off the fire and add the marinade and garlic. Give it time and then it’s ready to be served. The same ingredients, northerners use the braising technique to cook it. While the flavour is rich and fragrant, it is still no match to the intoxicating pot of wine infused aroma from the Shanghainese. Especially the hot and sticky autumn night in the city, nothing beats a pot of drunken goods for that refreshing and alcohol head, the aroma of wine fills the air, combining the slight autumn cool, it is a match made in heaven.
[Researched and translated from various sources]
- 《随园食单》，古代中国烹饪著作。共一卷。身为乾隆才子、诗坛盟主，袁枚一生著述颇丰。作为一位美食家， 《随园食单》是其四十年美食实践的产物，以文言随笔的形式，细腻地描摹了乾隆年间江浙地区的饮食状况与烹饪技术，用大量的篇幅详细记述了中国十四世纪至十八世纪流行的326种南北菜肴饭点，也介绍了当时的美酒名茶，是清代一部非常重要的中国饮食名著。