You can't make Drunken Chicken without it; or Drunken Shrimp or Drunken Crab either. It's one of the world's oldest and most heavily consumed wines, and it's about as important to Chinese cooking as soy sauce.

The first batch of shaoxing rice wine was brewed, it is said, well over 2,000 years ago in the county of Shaoxing, south of Shanghai on China's east coast. Local spring and mineral waters and a blend of glutinous rice, rice, millet and a special yeast give this amber-colored beverage a unique flavor. It's uncannily close to dry sherry in color, bouquet and alcohol content (18 percent), more so than to sake or a grape wine. The average shaoxing is aged 10 years underground in earthenware -- the finest for a century or more.

Shaoxing wine is also called hua daio, meaning "carved flower" after the design on the urns in which it's aged; also "daughter's wine" since traditionally some is stored at the birth of a daughter to be drunk at her wedding.

Like sake, shaoxing is drunk warm, and since it's more potent its effects are even more quickly felt. It's perhaps most important as a cooking ingredient. Curiously it's not listed in the ingredients sections of some popular Chinese cookbooks although it's now widely available in Chinese food stores. Even some liquor stores carry it. The only substitute is a good dry sherry. White wine or sake won't do. In fact, shaoxing can be substituted with good results in western recipes that call for sherry.

A dash of shaoxing is standard to most stir-fried dishes, and a quarter of a cup or more may be used with braised foods. A bottle or two might be used in what the Chinese refer to as "drunken" dishes. In Drunken Crab and Drunken Shrimp the live shellfish actually expire in a shaoxing brine, where they pickle for a few days before they're eaten. (Mercifully, the Drunken Chicken recipe that follows doesn't start with a live chicken.)

The real shaoxing wine from Shaoxing comes under the Pagoda Brand in blue-labeled bottle of 624 ml. (not to be confused with the identical yellow-labeled bottle, which is sweetened), and in a red-labeled bottle of 750 ml. In a bottle resembling Johnny Walker Red Label Scotch, a decent shaoxing is imported from Taiwan. DRUNKEN CHICKEN (4 servings)

Usually served as an appetizer or first course, this is an excellent buffet dish. It keeps for days in the refrigerator, but should be brought to close to room temperature before serving.

4-pound fresh chicken

Coarse salt

3 cups shaoxing wine or more

Fresh coriander sprigs for garnish

Place the chicken in a pot with water to cover and bring to a boil. Skim the surface clean, turn the heat to medium and cook for 15 minutes.

Cover, turn off the heat and allow the chicken to sit in the liquid until it cools, about 45 minutes. Remove the chicken and allow to cool.

Skim the surface of the cooking liquid and reduce to about 1 1/2 cups. Set this broth aside.

Cut the chicken into 8 pieces and very generously salt them one by one. Lay the chicken pieces in a bowl, cover with waxed paper and a lid, and let stand half a day. Meanwhile, mix the chicken broth with the shaoxing wine.

When the chicken has stood for at least 4 hours, pour the wine mixture over it, cover and refrigerate for at least 24 hours. (It may sit for 2 to 3 days.)

When ready to serve, chop the chicken, bones and all, into bite-size pieces and arrange on a serving platter garnished with the coriander.

Note: Reserve the wine/broth mixture for cooking. It will keep indefinitely refrigerated.