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Vinegar: A Basic Taste
Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices
Fall Volume: 2001 Issue: 8(3) page(s): 21 and 22
There is little mention of this ancient condiment by the name or word used today for vinegar in pre-Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) literature. The first known mention may have been in texts such as Mo Tzu (12th century through 221 BCE); however, what was spoken about was referred to simply as a seasoning. Few doubt that cu, which earlier was written as tschu, or vinegar by any name, did exist. The rationale is that it is as old as wine itself because when wine goes bad the resultant product most often is wine vinegar. Stella Fong, in a previous issue of Flavor and Fortune, in Volume 7(3) on pages 5, 22, and 24, discusses some early background materials when she discusses the role of vinegar for new mothers just after childbirth.
One of the five basic Chinese tastes or wu wei or sour is often translated as vinegar. One finds sour mentioned frequently in written materials such as the Songs of the South which in Chinese is called the Chu Tzhu. Written circa 300 BCE, this book mentions not only a sour sauce, but also a sour salad. Whether sour is specific to vinegar may be open to question, that vinegar is intended in many of these mentions, is not. We know that vinegar is one of the seven Chinese necessities, the others are rice, oil, salt, the soy bean, tea, and firewood.
The earliest food attributed to vinegar may have been the mei or Chinese plum/apricot, or it could have been the previously mentioned wine that bolted and became a vinegar. The reason for not being sure stems from the many earlier terms used for vinegar. They include: hsi, tai, chiu, and khu chiu. What seems to be certain is that the earliest record for vinegar’s manufacture appears in a publication titled the Important Arts of People’s Welfare. That document, dated 544 CE,describes a technology that was probably known hundreds of years earlier.
Today, most Chinese vinegars are made from cooked or raw cereal grains such as rice, millet, wheat, or barley. Others are made from beans, baked bread, spoiled or low quality or even ordinary wines, honey, and over ripe fruits including grapes, peaches, plums, and the already mentioned plum/apricot. Any of these can have additions of herbs and/or spices and other commodities such as peach blossoms, kumquats, and haw fruit. The vinegars made can be for regular use or for medicinal purposes, or both.
What fascinates, are some of the customs about the use of the word ‘vinegar.’ If one speaks about ‘drinking vinegar’ do not take that literally because the expression is metaphoric for 'jealousy.' In some areas of China, particularly in the north, when enjoying a dinner and wanting to season a particular food with this condiment, do not mention the word 'vinegar' because you may be speaking about your host. This taboo in polite circles is so strong, that you need to ask your table-mate to 'please pass the taboo word.'
An older protocol, rarely practiced these days, is to take a walk at a wedding. The walk in question is one watched by the bride’s in-laws when she walks around a bowl of vinegar then inserts a hot rod in it. She does this before entering her new home as a sign and pledge that she will never be troubled by jealousy. Another golden oldie, also rarely practiced, is using vinegar to dislodge a fish bone stuck in the throat. This particular cure was called ‘eating vinegar’ and actually had the person drink a lot of vinegar and suffer, but cough throughout the task, to dislodge the bone.
Years ago, not only were items such as these practiced, but so was making one’s own vinegar. It was made very near the door to the outside, stirring the mix in a its large urn with a thin jujube tree stem after the liquid had set some ten to twenty days. Then, depending upon the type of vinegar, the liquid was filtered and bottled. The reason the urn or jar was kept near the door was to keep it cool when the weather was hot. If need be, it was sprayed with water to cool it down. Should the vinegar be made from wine, it could be made outdoors and filtered with spring water, then allowed to sit in the sun. Those made with honey were also made outdoors. What was not known in early times, to use vinegar from a previous batch as a starter, what we now call the vinegar mother.
Vinegar has more uses than it has ancient beliefs. The most common are to flavor or season many different kinds of foods. Others are health related, others just for the taste. Venison with Ginger and Vinegar was an ancient tonic in winter. Vinegar was also a preservative. At least since Tang Dynasty times (618 - 907 CE), vinegar was used to preserve foods, especially crustaceans and mollusks. Pickled vegetables fermented by microorganisms then kept in vinegar were diverse and numerous. Early records show recipes for a plethora of different greens, root vegetables, and tubers, pickles made with meats and fish.
Vinegar was a respected and an important food product. So much so, that since Ming Dynasty times (1368 - 1644 CE), the Emperor’s palace staff, most eunuchs, oversaw the Imperial Vinegar Works, distributed vinegar for consumption at the Imperial tables, and oversaw its use for foods used as offerings. The emperor and his people loved this acidic staple condiment whose character was considered warm and whose ability was to season foods and counteract poisons. Vinegar was also thought to be good for females but not good for those with colds, coughs, or diarrhea.
The emperor and others knew that there were many kinds of vinegars to choose from, the best made in Kiangsu. He and his people who were connoisseurs loved thick and sweetened varieties especially those called Chinkiang. This variety, they preferred using mixed with the best soy sauce and the finest sesame oil, particularly for dipping their dumplings before popping them into their mouths. The emperors and other food cognoscenti knew that vinegar from Shanshi was famous and they loved cooking many foods in it. Eggs were even poached in this vinegar.
Not only emperors loved good vinegars, but so did fine chefs. Cantonese chefs steamed their best crabs in the best vinegar that money could buy. Chefs also loved vinegar from Teochi particularly as a garlic-vinegar dipping sauce for steamed goose or goose liver. West Lake Vinegar Fish was popular in Hangzhou, Drunken Chicken adored in the south, and Spiced Tangerine Chicken loved by chefs and their customers in Sichuan.
Vinegar was considered essential in the diet of mothers after childbirth, particularly when used for pickled pigs feet, as the above mentioned Fong article discusses. We now know that this combination extracted lots of calcium from the pig foot-bones replenishing any they lost in childbirth. Nursing also assured their offspring am ample supply of this element so important for strong bones. The article previously mentioned speaks of this and other foods made for pregnant and lactating women. Women did not question using these foods and modern Chinese women continue these traditional practices. They may not understand the rationale but they do please their mothers and aunties and themselves continuing this and other cultural behaviors.
Today, most medicinal vinegars in China are based upon rice vinegar. Aeration, oxidation, enzymes, even pasteurization are terms and technical know-how used to make different kinds of vinegars based upon different substrates. There are dozens upon dozens of different types and kinds of Chinese vinegar. How they are made, blended with bacteria, and what trace metabolites are used determine their characteristic flavors and fragrances. Most are made from rice wine lees and alcohol, red wine lees making red wine vinegar. Black vinegars are usually made from wheat, millet, or sorghum, and the best of these come from Zhejiang. The best red vinegars come from Fujian, and the best rice vinegars from Swatow.
Different vinegars substantially change tastes in a dish. Purchase and try not only those of different colors, but also try those by different manufacturers to find the one or ones you like best. We suggest that you taste test with others, and discuss your findings. The hard copy of this issue has a picture of our three favorites, one each white, red, and black.