I made a trip to an Asian supermarket while I was in LA. There were 2 kinds of starters, and I got them both:
"Angel-brand Rice Leaven" which comes in 8g packets similar to dry powdered yeast, and
"Shanghai Yeast Cakes" which are the ubiquitous Chinese yeast balls.
From the Wikipedia article on Chinese fermentation starters
, I learned that there are basically 3 types of starters, all composed of various yeasts, molds, and bacteria:
Small starter - made with molds of the Rhizopus
genus, this starter supposedly generates less heat and produces wine more neutral in flavor
The rice leaven packets list Rhizopus oryzae
as an ingredient, so they're probably of this type.
Large starter - the mold here is Aspergillus oryzae
(the species commonly called koji); almost all famous alcoholic drinks in China use this starter
Since they're more common, I bet that the yeast balls are "large starters".
Red starter - yeast and Monascus purpureus
, the species responsible for red yeast rice
I didn't see any of these beside the other starters. I did find red-colored rice in a different section (with other types of rice), but I'm not sure if that contains active cultures.
The instructions for the yeast balls are on the back of the package in Chinese only, so here they are, translated:
To make Jiuniang (glutinous rice pudding):
Open an individual packet and grind the 2 yeast balls into powder, about 20 g. Soak 1.2 kg [about 6 cups] of glutinous rice [also called sweet or sticky rice] for 3 hours in summer or 5 hours in winter. Drain and steam the rice until done. Add some cold water and bring the temperature to about 30 °C [86 °F]. Mix the powdered starter with the rice and pack the mixture down in a large enough vessel. Make a hole in the middle, 5cm in diameter and all the way to the bottom. Cover the vessel and keep warm, around 25-30 °C. After 24-36 hours, check the hole for sweet rice juice. When all the rice has softened up, the Jiuniang is ready. Refrigerate and enjoy.
To make Huangjiu ("yellow wine"):
Put the Jiuniang as prepared above in a large vessel and add 2.4 L of filtered water. Cover and let it ferment. After 24 hours, you'll see the rice clump up and float on top of the liquid. Use a clean utensil to mix it up. After repeating this for 7 days (more or less, depending on room temperature), the rice solids will have sunk to the bottom. The liquid is mostly colorless at this point. Strain the liquid out and let it settle, then you can heat pasteurize it and age it in the bottle. It will slowly take on color and become "Yellow Wine".
So there it is, the "right" way to do it, though I didn't read the instructions until after I started my first batch which is now on day 15. I used both starters in a sort of free-for-all. I'll update with details and pictures tomorrow :P