Wine made from rice has been a popular drink and cooking ingredient in China (where it's known as huang jiu) and Japan (where it's known as sake or mirin) for centuries.
For the Japanese, the making of rice wine has become a fine art. The best sakes are prepared and aged in small quantities by specialist artisans, and connoisseurs are selective about which sake should be used to accompany a dish. Chinese rice wine has a reputation for being almost rot-gut, which isn't entirely fair because aged huang jiu is smooth and mellow. Unfortunately, most of the huang jiu available is mass-produced and of poor quality. While Chinese rice wine isn't very popular outside China, Japanese sake has become a fashionable drink consumed on its own or used in saketinis and cocktails.
Chinese rice wine, made from regular or glutinous rice, is soaked, steamed, fermented and matured before being bottled. The most famous huang jiu comes from Shaoxing. Although huang jiu means yellow wine, it actually ranges in colour from pale yellow to deep brown. It is served warm and poorer quality rice wines are often served with a dried plum to make them more palatable.
Japanese rice wine is made from polished glutinous rice and the more the rice is polished, the smoother and more expensive the end result. Small bottles of premium sake can cost thousands of dollars. Sake, which is clear and colourless, is usually warmed in small beakers, but it's becoming more fashionable to serve certain types of sake either chilled or on ice.
Mirin is a sweetened yellow wine used primarily for cooking, adding sweetness and a glossy sheen to dishes. Sake can be used in cooking, but it's usually consumed on its own. In Chinese cooking, huang jiu is used in a meat marinade that includes soy sauce, white pepper, oil and small quantities of sugar and salt. Rub it into fresh fish before steaming it with shredded ginger and soy sauce.
Mirin is delicious on grilled meats and seafood, especially oily varieties of fish such as eel. Mix the mirin with soy sauce, ginger juice (or finely minced ginger) and sesame oil, and use this to marinate the ingredients. When grilling the meat or seafood, baste it frequently with the marinade as it cooks. Sprinkle with sesame seeds or finely minced spring onions before serving. Mirin is also delicious in a vinaigrette made with rice vinegar (apple vinegar is a good variation), miso paste, sesame oil, sugar and minced ginger.