Rice wine (also known as mijiu) is a must-have ingredient in Chinese cooking, possibly coming second only to soy sauce in importance. Whereas most wine is made from fermented fruit, rice wine is made from fermented glutinous rice, where the sugars are transformed into alcohol by yeast. Rice wine is somewhat clear and sweet and is used in marinades to tenderize meat and seafood, as well as to impart flavor to food.
Rice wine even forms the basis of an herbal soup meant to help new mothers recover quickly after giving birth. There are some varieties that are drinking-quality and meant to be consumed--these have a much lower alcohol content compared to Western wines.
Unfortunately, while rice wine is readily available at Chinese and Asian groceries, it is not always easy to find at regular local supermarkets. If you cannot find rice wine, here are some suggested substitutes.
Pale Dry Sherry
Available at liquor stores, pale dry sherry is the most commonly recommended substitute for rice wine. It comes closest in flavor to Shaoxing rice wine (also spelled Shao-hsing or Shaohsing), an amber-colored wine made with glutinous rice, wheat yeast, and spring water. Since rice wine can be hard to find, many recipes will only have dry sherry in the ingredients list, not even listing rice wine as an option.
Gin and Wine
While Shaoxing rice wine is commonly recommended because of its consistent high quality, there are many types of rice wines in China.
Interestingly, gin comes closer in flavor to the white rice wines than does dry sherry, so it is worth giving gin a try.
While the flavor is not the same, a dry white wine makes an acceptable substitute for Chinese rice wine in marinades. A decent alternative when that's all you have in the house.
If you are looking for something without alcohol, apple juice or white grape juice are good substitutions.
The acid in the juice acts as a tenderizer, making it an acceptable substitute for rice wine in stir-fry marinades. However, the flavor won’t be quite the same.
Japanese Rice Wines
Commonly referred to as the Japanese version of rice wine (although it actually has more in common with brewing beer), Sake has a very different flavor than Chinese rice wine. However, some cooks prefer it. It really comes down to personal preference. You can also try mirin, another Japanese rice wine, in place of Chinese rice wine. Just start with a lesser amount than the recipe calls for as it has a very strong flavor.
What to Avoid
It is important that you avoid certain ingredients while trying to find a substitute for rice wine. Cooking wines, sold in local supermarkets, are overly salted and have a different flavor than Chinese rice wine. And don't confuse Chinese rice wine vinegar with Chinese rice wine--these are vinegar, not wines, and will add an acidic flavor.