Drinking with chefs: Not your mom’s pumpkin spice with Jamie Pea

This autumn-ready infusion twists traditional pumpkin spice with Chinese botanicals and huangjiu.

Pumpkin is great. If you disagree, you are wrong, and gourd riddance. 

And no matter how many ways and times you’ve seen it, its autumn alter ego – pumpkin spice – is still a legend. That said, everyone does pretty much the same thing with it. But as part of a “guerrilla veggie” pop-up, Shanghai-based chef and avid Chinese cuisine surveyor Jamie Pea ventured off the heavily trampled path of predictable pumpkin spice in search of better-fitting botanicals and brew to accompany her squash-centric riffs on homestyle dishes.

Instead of going for the classic Western winter bourbon infusion, Jamie opted for huangjiu, a traditional Chinese alcohol fermented from rice, millet and/or other grains. “In the US, people use a lot of whiskey around the holidays. Huangjiu still adds that caramel-y, pecan kind of flavor, but it’s a bit lighter.”

Being quite sherry-like makes it an overall awesome companion to food.

Rich, aromatic and easy to sip, really if you had to pick a familiar counterpart to huangjiu, it would be sherry – and being quite sherry-like makes it an overall awesome companion to food.

“I’ve gotten into huangjiu for its mild sherry flavor, and particularly how it pairs with autumn dishes. For instance, it’s what people drink this time of year with Shanghai hairy crab – it’s just a great match for a ton of autumn foods.”

Though just as ubiquitous when it comes to Chinese alcoholic bevs, unlike baijiu – China’s most consumed spirit – huangjiu is a brewed beverage, not a distilled liquor. It’s made using three primary elements: water, grain and qū 曲 – a typical fermentation starter. As the name suggests (huáng 黄 = yellow / jiǔ 酒 = alcohol), it generally has a golden hue, but its color can basically fall anywhere on the clear to brown spectrum based on the brewing process, grains used, aging and so on. 

Huangjiu is complicated.

Huangjiu is complicated. It falls into multiple classifications, ranging from dry to extra sweet, with flavors spanning umami to herbal. Brewers age it from months to decades. It also comes in a huge variety of types depending on where it’s produced, added ingredients, intended use (drinking/cooking/medicinal), etc etc etc… how much time do you have?

“Never heard of it,” you say? Maybe not, but you’ve likely had it – which bring us back to what a friend it is to food. Outside of China, the most well-known style of huangjiu is probably Shaoxing wine, a key ingredient in Chinese cuisine. Think “Drunken Shrimp”(zuìxiā 醉蝦) as on the nose example, but it’s really a mainstay of every Chinese kitchen. 

Chef Jamie & Elysia of FIZZ!

Given all of the above, it’s easy to see how huangjiu’s flavor, color, body and even way of serving – usually up and often warm – make it kind of the perfect autumn drink. It’s also just super versatile, snuggling up brilliantly to Jamie’s fiery chili-oil splashed pumpkin noodles and her molasses-lashed, candied persimmon-laden Hong Kong-style bubble waffle alike. 

Get the recipe.

RECIPE: Smashed Pumpkins by Jamie Pea

This pumpkin spice infusion uses a 5-year aged huangjiu, which has more developed caramel notes and richer flavor than younger bottles.