Rice wine at the Mid-Autumn Festival

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19 September was the Mid-Autumn Festival or the Moon Festival. Beyond moon cakes, it is also a story of a woman who flew to the moon, a time for toasting a new full moon, and for me, a reason to taste good quality rice wine.

Ecstatic wine

The moon and (rice) wine is a pair that inspires countless poems in classical China. Imbibing wine until lightly inebriated, the poets recite poems or improvise lines of poetry and admires the beauty of a perfect new (round) moon. The poets thought wine helped their mind to hold – to possess – lyrical plays of words and turns of phrase. In that ‘enhanced’ state of mind, they repeat and elaborate on particularly beautiful phrases or words, much as one may savour the aroma and palate of a well-aged wine. A group of eight famous poets in the Tang Dynasty are still known as immortals in the wine cup.

One of the ‘eight immortals’ is Li Bai, who wrote many poems that involve drinking wine. A well known one is about the poet drinking alone, in a moon-lit garden. Unusually, he is not drinking in the company of fellow poets. Instead, he turns to the moon and his shadow as drinking companions, turning one person into three. He raises his earthenware cup to the moon, and then dances (presumably poetically), although the moon and his shadow cannot join his drinking or dancing.

800px-Libai_shangyangtai

In that poem, wine prompts him to use his imagination to create his own social drinking circle. He and wine, worshipping the moon in his inimitable fashion.

The image of Li Bai (or his alter ego) dancing alone in the garden, with lines of poetry swirling in his head, and inviting the moon to join the fun, might be an early form of moon dance. It always makes me think of Coleridge in his wilder moments: “And all should cry, Beware! Beware! / His flashing eyes, his floating hair! […] For he on honey-drew hath fed / And drunk the milk of paradise.” (Kubla Khan)

LiBai 

Nostalgic wine

Wine and the moon also have another, more nostalgic place in tradition.

In the legend about the origins of the moon festival, a hero shoots down nine of ten suns, and is rewarded with an elixir of immortality. He gives the elixir to his wife for safekeeping because he did not want to be parted from her. But, when his disciple tries to take the elixir from her, she swallows it and flies – exiled – to the moon. Our hero can only mourn for his wife by setting out her favourite food and drinks in the garden, and watching for her shadow on the full moon.

Instead of a (let’s call a spade a spade) wildly drunk Li Bai, we have a husband longing for his wife, the moon and wine being a way to be closer to each other – if you like, a kind of imagined possession. In this tradition, families and friends still drink toasts to each other when they are reunited. The more enthused they are, the more rounds of wine and more elaborate the speeches.

396px-The_Moon_Goddess_of_Chang'e_(Shi_Yu)304px-Leng_Mei_-_Figures_-_Spring_Evening_Banquet

Tasting wine

Apparently rice wine is one of the earliest types of alcohol produced: so much history in each cup of wine. It was only recently that I had a chance to taste good rice wine. It was a kind of ‘yellow wine’, a wine fermented from glutinous rice or sticky rice, and is common in Southern China. Up north, wine is commonly made from sorghum or other grains available in the region. There are many classifications based on taste and aroma (‘sauce’, ‘honey’, ‘rice’ or ‘layered’ anyone?), and generally the most famous of yellow wines come from the Shaoxing region of China.

shaoxing401px-ShaoxingwinefromXianHengInn

The colour is a kind of golden amber (others can be dark brown), and the taste was … deep, complex, without any fruitiness and with a whole lot of grains. The alcohol level is high-ish, and we warmed up quickly even though it was a cool spring evening. The wine we tasted had a real unami taste, probably not salty though with a full savoury flavour (definitely not your Riesling or even Chardonnay). I thought it would go well with food that is hearty, but not too heavily spiced, like hot pot, any kind of grains, braises and dumplings.

Other people have described the taste of yellow wine as nutty, aromatic, generally not at all like grape wines, but if you had to compare it to grape wine, the consensus seems to be the closest match is a manzanilla or other type of dry sherry.

And did we sip cups of rice wine, exchange phrases of poetry about the moon, in a moon-lit garden? Sadly, no. But I did have a sneaky thought about re-enacting Li Bai’s drunken moon dance in the garden…

dancing, inspired by Coleridge, or Li Bai, or both

Postscript: this is a last minute entry to the Month Wine Writing Challenge #3, hosted by Sally of My Custard Pie. The theme for this month is “Possession”, so as you can see, I’ve taken quite a bit of liberty with this theme – on the premise that “there must be a way to link mooncakes / Moon Festival to wine and possession!”

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19 thoughts on “Rice wine at the Mid-Autumn Festival

  1. Experienced Tutors 21 September 2013 at 3:28 am Reply

    Great post – beautiful illustrations.

    • saucygander 21 September 2013 at 7:14 am Reply

      Thanks, these were easy as I didn’t have to take the photos! 😉

  2. Alla 21 September 2013 at 3:43 am Reply

    I love this post! Thanks for introducing these legends, I was just reading up today on the mid autumn festival looking for an easy moon cake recipe to attempt this weekend 🙂

    • saucygander 21 September 2013 at 7:18 am Reply

      Great, did you end up making any mooncakes? I tried a type of “thousand layer teochew mooncakes”, delicious even though my technique needs more work. 🙂

      • Alla 25 September 2013 at 11:02 pm

        not yet! but I did make carrot cake… 🙂 mooncakes are however very firmly on the ‘list’ !

  3. Liz 21 September 2013 at 4:19 am Reply

    very cool!

    • saucygander 21 September 2013 at 7:21 am Reply

      And drunk! 🙂

      • Liz 21 September 2013 at 7:25 am

        haha, another reason to make a gym trip (after the headache goes away the next day of course)

  4. johnnysenough hepburn 21 September 2013 at 10:27 am Reply

    Before I went online yesterday evening I was watching the moon rise over the rooftops, not realising that there was any connection – I don’t think I’d ever heard of this Autumn moon before. And I’m not sure if it’s celebrated over here. Anyway, love your last line, about your sneaky thought!

    • saucygander 22 September 2013 at 11:21 am Reply

      It’s a huge holiday/event in China and many expat communities including Sydney. My favourite part is still eating the moon cakes – will post a simple version in a couple of weeks if you’re interested. My trial run moon cakes exploded, so need to learn to make non-explosive ones for the camera. 🙂

  5. the winegetter 21 September 2013 at 11:53 am Reply

    Fabulous!!! Great submission. We’ve been exploring the Korean rice wine, makgeolli lately…I am definitely intrigued.

    • saucygander 21 September 2013 at 2:53 pm Reply

      I’ve been reading about makgeolli, and am also intrigued. Maybe for a future write up. Thanks for visiting!

  6. Sally 21 September 2013 at 10:49 pm Reply

    There’s a huge full moon coming up soon isn’t there? I would dance round in my garden but it’s like a sauna right now. Such an interesting post and I love the part about alcohol possessing them to write poetry.

    • saucygander 22 September 2013 at 11:34 am Reply

      Yes. New full moons are so beautiful when the night sky is clear, even if you are not writing drunken poetry or dancing in the garden (though both could be fun!)

  7. […] Rice wine at the mid-Autumn festival by Saucy Gander […]

  8. karin@yumandmore 24 September 2013 at 7:03 pm Reply

    Lovely and intriguing post! China doesn’t automatically come to mind when thinking about wine.

  9. […] Rice wine at the mid-Autumn festival by Saucy Gander […]

  10. […] Rice wine at the mid-Autumn festival by Saucy Gander […]

  11. mwwcblog 21 December 2013 at 6:35 am Reply

    Reblogged this on mwwcblog.

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