Of vinegar and other matters

There’s an interesting, and at times hilarious, thread on Chinese cooking tradition on Chowhound – lwong’s dryly witty comment had me laughing out loud:

‘We see that the posters here on the “Home Cooking” Forum are a very tough bunch. Especially when 1400 years for the technique of “stir fry cooking in a wok” is not considered a sufficient time to have passed the “long test of time” in terms being considered a classic cooking technique, nor the introduction of the New World foods, which would only be in the neighborhood of a mere 700 years.’

It reminded me of the fact that many of the professional Chinese cooking manuals I have encountered in my work begin their introductions with an account of the discovery of fire, the moment when human beings ceased being savages who 茹毛饮血 (literally ‘ate feathers and drank blood, i.e. ate birds and animals raw), and embarked on the path of civilisation by cooking their food. It also reminded me of the late Chinese premier Zhou Enlai who, when asked for his assessment of the 1789 French Revolution, supposedly replied that it was ‘too early to say’.

Anyway, the Chowhound discussion was triggered by a question about what brand of soy sauce to serve with xiao long bao (小笼包). Actually, as some of the posters suggested, these deliciously juicy dumplings are normally served simply with a dip of rice vinegar and slivered ginger. Chinkiang vinegar, or black vinegar as it’s often called, is actually made from glutinous rice, and the dark colour comes naturally from scorched ricegrains.

Incidentally, I went recently with a chef friend to the wonderful Islington wine shop The Sampler, where you can taste small amounts of a wide range of wines. We began with modestly-priced examples of some fine Sancerres and New World Sauvignon Blancs, and ended up with a swig of a 1955 Pauillac, which was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever tasted – utterly delicious, as rich as an old Spanish ham, smooth and glorious, in a league of its own. Afterwards, we went back to my place and had an impromptu tasting of Chinese sesame oils, soy sauces and vinegars.

My friend, who is currently working as head chef at a very well-known restaurant in the West End of London, could not believe the quality of the artisanal sesame oil I’d brought back from Hangzhou, from the small factory I wrote about recently in the Financial Times. He was bowled over by it – it was SO much better than the toasted sesame oils available in the UK.

Of the soy sauces, the stand-out favourite was the Clearspring Tamari I use most often at home. It had a richer, more rounded flavour than the Kikkoman and Pearl River varieties we also tasted. I find this the closest soy sauce to the artisanal soy sauces I’ve tasted in China.

As to vinegars, I gave him a few different kinds of Chinkiang vinegar to try. We tried three produced by the famous Hengshun vinegar factory in Zhenjiang (Chinkiang), and a cheap Chinkiang vinegar that I’d bought in London’s Chinatown. Two of the Hengshun vinegars were fairly sharp, but the 10-year-old vinegar that I was given by the manager of the factory when I went there was superb, a bit like an Italian balsamic in some ways. The cheaper one tasted dull and musty by comparison. I wish the matured Zhenjiang vinegar was more widely available.

8 Responses to “Of vinegar and other matters”

  1. linda

    .. I smile reading this post! I know is very good Italian wines (I’m Italian infact!).
    Near Turin, where I live, in a little town called ASTI, and in the “LANGHE”, there are vineyards that produce very very delicious wine!
    if you come in Italy, I will be happy to point you to places where good wine is produced and where the landscapes seem to dream!

  2. peter

    Yes in Italy there are some nice artisinal wines but I’m afraid you won’t find them in the famous areas 😉 Try viniveri next month or vinnatur that is the real deal. I so very wish a could find a place on the internet where I could get artisan chinese products or at least above ‘factory’ level. Is there not enough in China Fuchsia?

  3. David Ockey

    Yeah, here in Japan as well, the sheer number of types of soy sauces is overwhelming. And, I’ve never met anyone who likes Kikoman. Tamari sauce, I hear, is a bit different (if made traditionally). It is the runoff from the process of making miso. I guess like marmite is the leftover product from the making of beer. I love having a wide variety of soy here and it makes a huge difference in my cooking. I wish I could get some of the nicer products from China. A high quality vinegar would be nice! Can’t imagine the sesame oils. Mmmmmmm.

  4. Bruce

    Favorite vinegar I found in Hawaii at Shirokiya’s is Persimmon Vinegar

    I was inspired to find it after watching the Korean Drama Dae Jang Geum where they buried Persimmon vinegar over 10 years previously.


    The best ChinKiang vinegar in Seattle I could find is Tung Chun Chinese Vinegar. It is pure vinegar, except is has Red dye #2, good for Dan Dan Noodles!

  5. Ryan

    Hi Fuchsia

    I read this article with much interest. I use camelia oil now and then in my cooking and I am growing more and more accustomed to the taste and character of the oil in my food. I would really like to visit the place that you wrote about in the FT article. I live in Suzhou and would like to make a weekend trip out to Hangzhou and buy/sample some of the oils. Can you please help me or put me in contact with them?

  6. Fuchsia

    I suggest that you contact the Dragon Well Manor (龙井草堂)in Hangzhou, and ask them if they can introduce you to the place, or at least offer you a chance to sample/buy their products. Their reservations line is (0571) 8788 8777 (I’m guessing that you either speak Chinese or can ask a Chinese friend to help you).

  7. Dana Johnson

    About to buy more persimmons tomorrow. Made about 3 quarts of vinegar three years ago and left it. Just opened it day before yesterday and it is wonderful. It isn’t properly made though since I started with dried persimmons and some added wheat bran. Only recipe I could find at the time was an old American one using the small wild persimmons. You couldn’t call this sweet, but it has a wonderful flavor. This time it will be just fresh persimmons ( whichever variety they have at the Korean market.
    On a trip to Xian in 2008 I asked our guide what the sauce for the noodles was. He said emphatically that it had to be made with persimmon vinegar. Soy sauce, persimmon vinegar and a spoonful of that ground hot pepper in oil stuff over a bowl of fresh pulled noodles. Simple, but one of my best food memories of the trip.

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