Immigration and changing tastes have meant many mainstream stores stock more and more Asian ingredients. People unaware of the intricacies of Asian cooking may not always know the differences and the uses of some of these exotic ingredients. A great example of this is rice wine and rice vinegar, while quite similar, are used in very different situations.
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Rice wine, or sake, is exactly what it sounds like, an alcoholic drink distilled from rice. It has been made in China for over 4,000 years. The process of making it is much closer to beer than to wine, although it produces a drink more akin to a spirit.
The obvious difference between rice wine and rice vinegar is the addition of bacteria which turns the alcohol in the wine into acid.
Types of Rice Wine Vinegar
Although there is only one basic type of rice wine many things can be added to rice vinegar to alter the taste. Black rice vinegar is made from sweet rice making it more sugary, not unlike balsamic vinegar. Red vinegar is a sweet and sour variety and white rice vinegar is similar to normal vinegar. Ginger, chillies and other spices can also be added.
As rice wine and rice vinegar are such different products, they are used in very different ways. Rice wine is normally drunk as you would any other alcoholic beverage, whereas rice vinegar is used widely in all Chinese cooking with its most common use is in dipping sauces. Rice wine is used in cooking but not to the same extent.