AYER TAWAR, MALAYSIA: Making home-brewed ang chow (rice wine) is a delicate task. Too hot, and the wine will spoil; too cold, and there won’t be any at all.
“Wine is very sensitive,” shared Madam Ong Ah Lee, 71, as we stood in her old-school kitchen with the smell of dried goods in the air and the sound of her barnful of chickens outside clucking away, as they basked freely in the sun.
In the cooler nooks and crannies of her home in the small town of Ayer Tawar outside Ipoh, she keeps an assortment of glass jars that store wines at various stages of fermentation. She recalled how one morning, her family woke up to the eerie sight of the store room covered in a blood-red splatter – a jar holding 10 kg of wine had exploded.
“It releases gas, so you have to leave some space in the jar for it. I had packed it to the brim so the air forced itself out and the wine went everywhere!” she said.
These days, the 71-year-old has perfected the art of making rice wine. After all, it is one of the key ingredients in her specialty dish, hong zao ji (red wine chicken), which she makes completely from scratch (recipe below).
This may be a common dish in this town known for its Hock Chew (or Fuzhou) cuisine, but what makes her version stand out is the way she prepares it - even the chicken she uses is organically reared in her backyard, where she also keeps dozens of other free-roaming fowl like geese, ducks and turkeys.
WATCH: The old kampung art of rearing your own food (4:12)
“It’s very convenient. Whenever you want to eat, you just take one and kill it,” she said matter-of-factly of this holdover practice of kampung days.
The result is a heavy tonic of chicken essence infused with a rich wine broth, while “the ones at the restaurants are not as sweet nor as thick… they just put in a few pieces of chicken and boil it for a short time,” said Mdm Ong.
A RECIPE FROM THE ANCESTORS
Red wine chicken is a dish steeped in Hock Chew tradition, and she makes the dish the way it has been done in her family for generations.
“It’s a recipe passed down from my ancestors. When I went back to my village in China, they made this dish for me too, it’s like a blessing,” she said.
On special occasions such as birthdays, red wine chicken is served with mee sua (white wheat noodles) and a boiled egg as a symbol of longevity.
On top of that, the wine is believed to replenish blood and to help with its circulation, so it’s also a popular confinement dish for ladies who have just given birth. “My mother-in-law made me eat this dish every single day for 30 days!” said Mdm Ong.
It would make sense then that Mdm Ong insists on using only the best ingredients. And for her, it starts with the rice wine.
In her makeshift cellar, Mdm Ong shows us the different types of wine she yields after months of fermentation. Some are a bright cloudy red, while others have a deep rum-like appearance.
Ang chow is made by fermenting glutinous rice with yeast. But unlike other Chinese rice wines, it has a distinctive red tone because of red yeast rice, which grows wild in Fujian, China, where the Hock Chew people are from.
“I heard that in China, people drink ang chow at night before they sleep. It’s like a tonic for them,” said Mdm Ong.
But when I do that, it goes right to my head. It makes my heart race and I get paranoid that my brain will just explode.
"So I don’t drink it like that - only one or two spoons when I’m cooking," she added.
Typical rice wines have an alcoholic content of about 18 to 25 per cent. The longer the wine is left to ferment, the stronger it becomes, which also affects how “rich” the dish will taste when cooking with rice wine.
“I have already started making my wine for Chinese New Year,” she shared.
KAMPONG CHICKEN IS BETTER
Bright and early at 7.30am, Mdm Ong mixes up a pail of dried coconut fibers with boiled rice. It’s breakfast time for the chickens. She heads to the coop where her winged charges are already pecking at a pile of vegetables put out by her son - a diet void of “chemicals”.
“That’s why our kampung chicken tastes so good,” she said.
Mr Siew Yang Ti, Mdm Ong’s youngest son, forbids his children from eating chicken other than those from his backyard. He said:
I worry about the hormones they put in commercial chickens. Others kill their chickens at 30 days. Ours live for four months before they’re ready, and they get to exercise.
His mother added: “When I go to Kuala Lumpur to visit my daughters, I will kill a few of my own for them.”
After the morning feed, Mdm Ong hunts around for the day’s eggs in the nooks and crannies of the barn. “The hens like to lay their eggs where no one can see them,” she said.
She collects a bucket full of eggs, some as small as a grape, others almost fist-sized. There’s more than enough to feed all 14 people in her household.
“SOMETIMES I CAN’T BEAR TO PART WITH THEM”
Today, red wine chicken is on the menu. She picks up one of her beloved chooks from the barn, and with a gentle snip to the neck, it bleeds to death.
“Sometimes I can’t bear to part with them. But what do we do with them if we don’t kill them?” said Mdm Ong.
She de-feathers it, and in a matter of minutes, it becomes a pair of drumsticks, wings and breast meat on her chopping board. Mr Siew is right – the meat is visibly leaner and firmer than commercially farmed poultry meat.
Mdm Ong browns the chicken in a generous amount of sesame oil and sliced ginger. Then, as she empties an entire bottle of ang chow into the wok, an earthy, boozy smell fills the kitchen.
“Those who can’t hold their liquor will get drunk. In my house we don’t get drunk, but our faces turn red,” Mdm Ong chuckled.
One by one, her young grandchildren pop into the kitchen for their share. They slurp up the long strands of mee sua and chug down big bowls of the red broth.
“Grandma’s hong zao mee sua is the best in the world!” they concur.
THE RECIPE: MADAM ONG’S RED WINE CHICKEN MEE SUA
This recipe feeds 20 people.
For the rice wine:
Red glutinous rice wine
1kg glutinous rice (nuo mi)
150mg red yeast rice (hong ju mi)
1-2 pieces small yeast balls (also known as wine biscuits) - available at chinese medical halls
1 glass jar
This will make about 2 litres of wine; the yield may vary.
For the red wine chicken mee sua:
2 whole chickens, cut into pieces
2 whole gingers, julienned
¼ cup sesame oil
750 ml red glutinous rice wine
1 tbsp red glutinous rice wine residue
1 pot boiling water
MAKE THE RICE WINE
1. Steam glutinous rice with about 2 cups water for 45 mins.
2. Leave to cool overnight. “The rice has to be cooled completely or bacteria will set in,” said Mdm Ong.
3. In a clean and dry glass jar, alternate layers of white glutinous rice with the red yeast rice.
4. Do not fill to the brim. Gas escapes as the rice ferments, so you have to leave some space in the jar for it.
5. Break up the wine biscuits and sprinkle it over the top layer. Mdm Ong uses 1 piece of wine biscuits for 1kg of glutinous rice. The more yeast you put in, the more concentrated the wine becomes. (Tip: “Some wine biscuits will make the wine sour, others sweet. It’s up to your own preference.”
6. Seal the jar tight to prevent contamination and insects from getting in. (“Wine is very sensitive. With the slightest bit of bacteria, it will spoil.”)
7. Ten days later, take off the lid and mix up the contents in the jar.
8. Leave the rice to ferment for at least 3 months in a cool and dry place. Mdm Ong sometimes ferments it for up to 6 months - the longer it does, “the richer the taste will be”.
9. To extract the wine, put the mixture through a sieve or a coffee sock. Squeeze out the liquid and store in a glass bottle. “The wine should be clearer at the top of the jar, and thicker at the bottom.”
10. Blend the residue that is left behind. This can also be used to marinate meats.
MAKE THE RED WINE CHICKEN MEE SUA
1. Fry ginger in sesame oil until fragrant.
2. Brown the chicken pieces and let some of the moisture evaporate before adding in wine.
3. Add 2 Chinese spoons of red wine residue to “give it a nicer colour”.
4. Add the rice wine. Simmer for 5-10 minutes to let some liquid evaporate.
5. Pour the stew into a pot of boiling water to make soup. Boil until chicken meat is tender.
6. Serve with mee sua. (Tip: “I don’t put salt in the soup because the mee sua will make it salty enough,” said Mdm Ong.)
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Check out our earlier series on vanishing home recipes in SIngapore.