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Pucker Up
A love letter to vinegar

By Picky Eater, Sep 03, 2004

A staple in the pantry and cupboard, vinegar — believed to be one of the oldest condiments in the world — is one of those ingredients that can clean windows and remove lime deposits besides adding flavor to dishes and sophistication to desserts.

According to the Vinegar Institute, vinegar dates back some 10,000 years, with flavored vinegars having been manufactured and sold for nearly 5,000 years. The word comes from the French vinaigre, or “sour wine.” The Babylonians used it as a preservative and a condiment and were the first to add herbs for flavorings. Romans drank vinegar as a beverage. Campers today are advised to pack a bottle of vinegar as a salve for rashes, cuts and bug bites.

Vinegar is a result of natural sugars fermenting into alcohol and then adding bacteria to convert the liquid into an acid; it can be produced from molasses, sorghum, wheat, millet, fruits, nuts, malt, grains, whey or rice.

The Chinese have been making rice vinegar for some 5,000 years. There are three basic types: white vinegar, used for cold dishes; red vinegar, for seafood and sweet-and-sour dishes; and black vinegar for dipping sauces and stir-fry dishes.

Perhaps the most popular and favorite Chinese black vinegar is Chinkiang vinegar, which originated from China’s Jiangsu province. Made from three basic ingredients (water, glutinous rice and salt), Chinkiang vinegar is widely used in China, especially in the North and South, where dumplings are doused with the tart and mouth-puckering condiment, and pigs’ feet are glazed with the black vinegar along with ginger and anise seed.

Here in the States, Chinkiang vinegar lines the shelves of Asian markets, along with a host of other black vinegars, some with added sugars, MSG and chili. I prefer the Gold Plum Chinkiang Vinegar, which is made in China and exported by the Jiangsu Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corp. A Gold Plum vinegar expert in Nanjing, China, told me by phone that Chinkiang vinegar is made from “high-quality polished glutinous rice [and] enjoys a high reputation all over the world for its characteristic as sour without tasting puckery.”

As I sit here writing this, my lower lip has been roughened and wrinkled by the numerous teaspoons of Chinkiang vinegar, balsamic vinegar and distilled white vinegar I’ve sipped and sampled, and a warm sensation is beginning to fill my stomach.

Appearancewise, Chinkiang vinegar resembles balsamic vinegar; however the taste is milder. Unlike the sharp, acidic punch of other vinegars, Chinkiang’s flavor is mellow, smoky and slightly sweet. And whereas I may get whiplash putting my nose to a bottle of Heinz white vinegar, my nostrils don’t feel as if they’re quivering when I sniff Chinkiang vinegar; rather, the aroma is like an amalgamation of soy sauce, fragrant rice and sugar.

Chinkiang Vinegar

Gold Plum Brand, Made in China

21.2 fl. oz.

Average prices at Asian markets: $0.99 to $1.09

Yu Xiang Ji Si (Fish-fragrant Chicken Slivers)

An easy dish to prepare with leftover chicken; serve as an appetizer. Although the name of the dish implies the addition of fish, “fish-fragrant dishes” are prepared with ingredients used traditionally when cooking fish.

• 1 pound cooked and cooled chicken breast

• 3 scallions

• 1 tablespoon finely minced ginger

• 1 tablespoon minced garlic

• 3 tablespoons soy sauce

• 1 tablespoon Chinkiang vinegar

• 1 tablespoon sugar

• 3 tablespoons chili oil

• 2 teaspoons sesame oil

• 1 - 2 tablespoons pickled chili paste

Shred chicken or cut into slivers, and arrange evenly onto dish. Clean scallions, and cut into fine slivers. Combine soy sauce, vinegars and sugar until sugar is dissolved. Add oils, ginger, garlic, chili paste and scallions. Pour sauce over the chicken and serve cold.

Jiang Zhi Jiang Dou (Yard-long Beans With Ginger Sauce)

Yard-long beans are available at farmers’ markets and Asian markets. If unavailable, French baby green beans (haricot verts) or string beans may be substituted.

• 1 pound yard-long beans, or green beans

• 4 teaspoons fresh julienned ginger

• 1 teaspoon fresh minced garlic

• 3 tablespoons chicken stock

• 2 teaspoons Chinkiang vinegar

• 4 teaspoons sesame oil

• Salt to taste

Trim ends of beans and cut into 2-inch pieces. Add beans and 1 tablespoon of salt to a pot of boiling water; cook beans for two to three minutes until beans are crisp-tender. Drain and rinse with cold water. Pat water off of beans, and arrange on a platter. Combine ginger, garlic, chicken stock and vinegar. Stir in sesame oil, and salt to taste.

Dipping Sauce for Dumplings or Raw Daikon

Let sauce sit for five to 10 minutes before serving to let ginger and cilantro infuse the oil-and-vinegar mixture. Traditionally in Sichuan, a person has his/her own bowl in which the dipping sauce is placed; the dumplings are served in the same bowl.

• 1/2 teaspoon sugar

• 2 teaspoons soy sauce

• 1/2 teaspoon Chinkiang vinegar

• 4 tablespoons chili oil

• 2 teaspoons sesame oil

• Fresh julienned ginger, cilantro, scallions

Mix soy sauce and vinegar; add sugar and oils; and garnish with fresh ingredients.

Reach the Picky Eater at [email protected].

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