Harold McGee, the author of Keys to Good Cooking, is an expert on the chemistry behind food and cooking. McGee recently made his first trip to China, where he learned more about rice wine.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: How was China?

Harold McGee

Harold McGee: Oh, man, it was eye-opening, mind-opening, palette-opening -- so many new experiences of all kinds. I'm past 60, and going someplace and just feeling as if you've never experienced anything like this before in your life is rare at my age, and that's exactly how I felt.

LRK: Food is really a profoundly different experience there. I'm not just thinking about taste, but it's so deeply embedded in the culture and the mentality in ways that we don't really understand, or at least we don't practice.

HMG: Yeah. The experiences you have in restaurants and people’s homes -- my feeling was that I was only getting 10 or 15 percent of what was actually going on. I was very lucky to be there when Fuchsia Dunlop was there. Fuchsia is, I think, the English-speaking world’s expert these days on food in China. In fact, one fascinating experience was that I went to a renowned Shanghai restaurant one week with one set of hosts, and then the following week with Fuchsia. She had heard my discussion of what I'd experienced the week before, and thought that I'd missed out on what that particular restaurant was all about. So she insisted on taking me back. It was the same menu that she chose from, but the meal was completely different and tremendously various.

LRK: What were some of the things that you were eating?

HMG: For example, vegetables that I've never had before: bamboo pith fungus and stalk lettuce, celtuce, a variety of lettuce that's grown not for the leaves but for the stalks. We had a cod head that was cooked just for us by one cook standing there and pouring hot oil over it repeatedly. You can imagine how labor-intensive that is, and they do it to order for whoever orders that particular dish -- it's like a deep-fat frying version of rotisserie cooking. The end result was just amazing.

LRK: You wrote an article on rice wine.

Rice Harold McGee's recipe for DIY Rice Wine

HMG: Yes. I wrote this article because when I was in China, I kept having this experience of deliciousness of a certain kind. I would keep asking, “What's in this, what makes this so wonderful?” Frequently, the answer was rice wine. I learned from Fuchsia that it’s something that's very easy to make at home, even in the United States. If you live anywhere that has an Asian market nearby, it's just a standard part of the pantry for Chinese cooks.

So when I got back, I searched the many Chinese markets that we have here in San Francisco and found that most of them, in fact, did carry these little inch-diameter white balls that resemble Ping-Pong balls. It turns out that all you have to do is cook up some rice -- glutinous rice or sweet rice or sticky rice is the best -- and then you take one of these white balls, and you grind it up into a powder. You mix it with the cooked rice and keep it in a warm place like an oven with the pilot light on. In a few days the rice grains liquify and you end up with rice wine. Presto chango! Delicious.

LRK: What's in those little white balls? That seems to be the real key.

HMG: The key is a complex mixture of microbes, funguses, bacteria and yeasts dried out and embedded in a ball of rice flour. When you make bread or something like that, you buy a package of yeast, and the yeast start growing when you add water to them and they make bubbles and flavor. It's that basic idea except that in the case of making rice wine, you have to include microbes that can do one more additional thing before the yeasts can get going. The yeasts can only live on sugars, and rice grains are made up mostly of starch. Starch is essentially long strings of sugar molecules, but the yeasts are not capable of metabolizing starch. So you grind up the white balls, which are dry, and when they're in contact with the moist, wet, warm rice grains freshly cooked, then they revive and they start metabolizing again. The molds break down the starch into sugars, and then the yeasts and the bacteria turn the sugars into alcohol and into the lactic acids. You find these in things like yogurt that give the wonderful tartness that balances the sweetness.

LRK: To get these white balls, what do you ask for?

HMG: The biggest challenge of this whole dish is to find the white balls in the first place. What I did was cruise the aisles in my local Chinese grocery until I found something that answered the description that Fuchsia had given me. When I didn't find them, I asked someone and I tried to describe what they are for. Finally after four or five explanations, I was led to the right spot. So that may be a bit of a challenge to find them. They're called things that they aren't, like rice cakes and yeast balls and things like that, so, you'll have to do a little exploring.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper
Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.