mandarin: tsoo; Cantonese: tso

I love vinegar, as do most Chinese, who throughout the course of their rich culinary history have made vinegar variously from rice, wheat, peaches, and grapes, flavoring them on occasion with peach blossoms and kumquat leaves. I use many types when I cook, and am always tasting new brands. Unfortunately, as my generous pile of labels and tasting notes attests, there are few high-quality Chinese vinegars currently available in American markets.

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.

I use rice vinegar more and more, increasingly to the exclusion of Western white vinegar. It is excellent in Western salads, paired with a dash of sesame oil.

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.

To find here a quality, well-aged Chinese black vinegar with a strong but good flavor is as difficult as finding dragon’s teeth. I have found only one brand that appeals to me, Narcissus brand Black Vinegar, Yongchun Laocu (水仙花牌永春老醋), whose Chinese name means “aged vinegar from Yongchun,” which is a city in Chekiang. This particular brand appears on the market in spurts, as it has for years, and is easier to get mail order than to find on one’s own. It is good in combination with other Chinese seasonings, though it is rather harsh when tasted alone.

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.

As with oils, I am always sampling new brands as they appear and suggest that you do the same. The vinegar situation has remained the same for years, but I keep looking hopefully for the next good one to appear.

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.