Rice Vinegar (白米醋 mandarin: bye-mee-tsoo; Cantonese: bok-my-tso). Called “white rice vinegar” in Chinese, this is a white to golden vinegar with a sharp, clean taste, lighter in character and more full-flavored than a distilled Western white vinegar, and not as sweet as cider vinegar. “Refreshing” and “pleasantly tangy” are two phrases’ which crop up repeatedly in my notes, but seem an inadequate description for the charm of this vinegar.
The Chinese brands I have sampled are a bit on the harsh side. My customary brand is Marukan, a Japanese product. Be sure to buy the unseasoned sort that is bottled with a green label. Another excellent brand is Mitsukan, again a Japanese make.
Well-Aged Chinese Black Vinegar: There are a variety of terms in Chinese to describe dark vinegar, a vinegar with a distinctive dark color and depth of flavor that is made from a fermented rice base. A lighter dark vinegar will be called red vinegar (紅醋 mandarin: hoong-tsoo; Cantonese: hong-tso), while a more deeply colored and flavored dark vinegar will be called black vinegar (黒醋 mandarin: hey-tsoo; Cantonese: hut-tso). The best and most richly flavored of the dark vinegars are known as Chekiang, Chen-jung, or Chenkong vinegar (鎮江醋 mandarin: fen-jyang-tsoo; Cantonese: Chen-goong-tso) all being transliterations of the name of the central coastal province long famous for their production.
A perfectly good substitute is balsamic vinegar, which is an Italian aged vinegar very similar in character to Chekiang vinegar but with a touch more sweetness. I use a reasonably priced brand, produced in Modena by Federzoni Elio and Company, which comes in a 17-ounce bottle with an olive-green label and is available in large specialty shops and through mail order. If you are using balsamic vinegar in any of the preceding recipes, decrease slightly the amount of sugar called for, then adjust further if required.
Cider Vinegar and White Vinegar: These are the vinegars with which I first learned to make Chinese pickles in the kitchen of my mentors, the Lo’s, and I still like them for this purpose. They are rather sweet and harsh, respectively, but their assertive tastes are in keeping with the character of pickled vegetables. For the same reason, you will usually see white vinegar used in hot and sour-style dishes, where it is the nature of the dish to be bold and gutsy, not refined.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.