VINEGAR is one of the most versatile characters in the kitchen, with thousands of years of history and multitudes of uses.
For those who like a sour taste, it’s a must-have condiment to sprinkle on foods.
Ella Ruby Ginn, a 19-year-old makeup artist from Hastings in Britain, loves vinegar so much that she drinks a wine glass of it every day, according to a story in the Daily Mail last month.
Vinegar is acetic acid, often with flavorings. The name comes from the French vin aigre, which literally translates as “sour wine.” Aside from its culinary applications, vinegar is used as a cleaning agent, an antiseptic, a fabric softener and even a weed killer.
Its history is as colorful as its uses.
Around 5,000 BC, Babylonians used vinegar as a preservative and condiment. Later, the Roman army used it as a beverage, according to the Vinegar Institute website. Cleopatra dissolved pearls in it, and Hippocrates extolled its medicinal qualities.
The Greeks also reportedly pickled vegetables or meats using vinegar. And when Hannibal crossed the Alps with an army riding elephants, obstructive boulders were heated and doused with vinegar to make them crack and crumble. During the American Civil War, vinegar was used to treat scurvy, and as recently as World War I, it was used to treat wounds.
But back to modern times.
Unlike that other popular condiment soy sauce, which is brewed from beans, vinegar is made from a wide variety of grains and berries. Vinegars made variously from grapes, cane, apples, persimmons, kiwifruit and other materials each have distinctive flavors.
It’s perhaps the only condiment that has expanded to the beverage aisle of supermarkets.
Apple cider vinegar is a popular drink in many countries, a sweet-and-sour beverage as quenching as cool lemonade. In China, there are also other blended fruit vinegar beverages, infusing juices from wolfberries, plums and strawberries with grain-brewed vinegar.
Vinegar in China
China has a documented history of vinegar-making that spans over 3,000 years, dating from the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC–256 BC). In China, it’s called cu (醋). The name “bitter liquor” comes from its origins as an alcohol derivative.
One ancient tale traces the “discovery” of vinegar to Heita, son of the legendary Du Kang, inventor of Chinese wine. Heita is said to have discovered that a by-product of distillation could be fermented into an aromatic, sweet-and-sour condiment.
In the Zhou Dynasty, vinegar makers for the imperial court were called zuo ren (酢人). In the Spring and Autumn period from 771- 476 BC, vinegar breweries were established. The condiment was documented in “The Analects of Confucius.”
The craft of brewing vinegar from grain was gradually perfected. In the beginning, it was produced mainly for royals, court officials and the wealthy. But beginning in the Tang Dynasty (618–907), use of vinegar spread to the common people and became an indispensable part of Chinese cuisine. Famous dishes like scallion vinegar chicken and vinegar-flavored celery emerged during this time.
It was during the Tang period that the phrase “eating vinegar” was coined to describe jealous people.
In Ming and Qing dynasties, rice and fruits were added to the list of ingredients used to make vinegar.
Chinese vinegar can be divided into two categories: black and white.
Shanxi Province is the premier vinegar producer in China, famous for its black vinegar made from sorghum and other grains. The flavor is strong, complex, very acidic and malty. Some traditional workshops there still make it according to ancient processes.
In Shanxi, eating food without vinegar is unthinkable. The province consumes the largest volume of vinegar of all provinces in China. It’s added to stir fries, soups and noodles, and is believed to help digest starchy foods like buns and noodles.
The love of vinegar spills over to the neighboring province of Shaanxi, where locals like sour, spicy foods. Its Qishan vinegar is not quite as well-known as Shanxi black vinegar, but it is a must when making the famous Qishan noodles.
In Chishui, Guizhou Province, vinegar-making has changed little since the Ming Dynasty. It involves 36 steps, two or three years and letting the vinegar age in the sun. Chishui vinegar is very fragrant and thick, with a bold and sour taste that lingers deliciously in the mouth.
Zhenjiang aromatic vinegar from Jiangsu Province is another of the “four acclaimed vinegars” in China. It is widely distributed and sold in supermarkets around the country. This vinegar possesses a special aroma and a hint of sweetness not found in other vinegars.
Baoning vinegar, which originated in Sichuan Province, is brewed using wheat bran, wheat and rice, and is flavored with a combination of spices including hawthorn, cinnamon, almonds and fructus amomi, a common aromatic herb in traditional Chinese medicine. The vinegar is mostly used in Sichuan cuisine.
White vinegar, made from wheat and rice, is often used to pickle vegetables. It is also deployed to clean windows, counters and wooden furniture.
Perhaps one of the best-known vinegars is balsamic, which originated in Modena in Italy and is made from grapes. The dark, sweet vinegar is aged in casks made from oak or mulberry.
Traditional balsamic, or aceto balsamico tradizionale, is made from cooked grapes harvested in Modena or Reggio Emilia. It ages for more than 12 years. The less expensive version, or aceto balsamico di Modena, doesn’t undergo such a long aging period. There are also cheap balsamics that are colored and flavored with caramel.
Balsamic vinegar is used in a wide variety of dishes, from dressing salads to seasoning grilled meats. It can also be used to make ice cream, especially when paired with berry flavors to bring out the natural flavor of fresh fruit. In Shanghai, a small gelato eatery on Wukang Road called WIYF sells a short menu of only four ice cream flavors, one of which is balsamic vinegar-flavored raspberry sorbet.
In Japan, rice vinegar is called komezu, a mild and light-colored condiment used in dishes, in pickling and in marinades. Seasoned rice vinegar with sake, salt and sugar is added to cooked rice to make sushi.
The black vinegar called kurozu is also made from rice. It is lighter than Chinese black vinegar and is considered rich in amino acids with anti-cancer benefits.
In the Philippines, cane vinegar is very popular and similar to rice vinegar. Despite its origin in sugar cane, it is not sweet.
And in Britain, no self-respecting fish-and-chips lover would think of eating this iconic meal without sprinkles of malt vinegar. It is a light brown vinegar brewed from malt barley.
Chinese vinegars can be purchased in all supermarkets and grocery stores. A half-liter bottle of regular Zhenjiang aromatic vinegar sells for about 10 yuan (US$1.50), while the variety aged for six years costs about 27 yuan.
Ninghuafu brand Shanxi black vinegar is more expensive than most because it is aged for eight years and handmade. A half-liter will set you back about 35 yuan.
Various kinds of balsamic vinegar are available in the imported food section of supermarkets. They are mostly the common balsamic vinegar of Modena, which is priced at around 40 yuan per half liter.
For apple cider vinegar, the Heinz brand with five percent acidity is priced at around 27 yuan for a 946ml bottle. The German brand Kühne sells for 22 yuan for a 750ml bottle.