Rice has always played an important role in Chinese cooking and culture. Chinese people have created and invented many different things using rice but this is completely unsurprising as rice has been used in Chinese cuisine for thousands of years. In fact, Chinese people have been using rice to make vinegar for at least 3000 years.
A trip through any Asian/Chinese grocery store or supermarket will quickly reveal how complex the world of rice vinegar has become since those ancient times.
There are several basic types of Chinese rice vinegar, along with sweetened varieties that contain everything from sugar to ginger, orange peel and/or cloves for an added extra flavour.
You can use different kinds of rice vinegar to prepare different kinds of foods in Chinese cooking. Some of the sweetened or flavoured vinegars can even make a delicious summer drink.
There are different places in China that produce different types of rice vinegar, flavurs and colours.
Here are a couple examples of famous Chinese rice vinegars from different locations in China:
Shanxi aged vinegar
Shanxi aged vinegar is a famous traditional Chinese vinegar. It is made from different kind of grains, such as rice, sorghum, barley, bran and chaff. It’s fermented using solid-state fermentation techniques. Shanxi aged vinegar has 3000 years of history and the colour of the Shanxi aged vinegar is dark reddish brown.
The flavour of Shanxi aged vinegar is mellow, sour and slight sweet.
Zhenjiang Vinegar (chinklang vinegar) is a rice-based black vinegar that’s produced mainly in the city of Zhenjiang in the Jiangsu Provice of China. The origin of Zhenjiang vinegar can be traced back at least 1400 years BC and tied to the Xia Dynasty period.
There is a story behind Zhenjiang Vinegar. During the Xia Dynasty, a winemaker was drunk and he felt very thirsty so he had a couple sips of water from a wine making tank and he was surprised by how delicious the water from the wine making tank is. The water had a sweet and sour taste and this is how Zhenjiang vinegar was discovered.
Before going any further, let’s clear up the difference between rice wine and rice vinegar. Enjoyed by the Chinese for over 4,000 years, rice wine is made by a fermentation process involving yeast that transforms the sugars from glutinous rice into alcohol. When making rice vinegar the fermentation process goes one step further, adding bacteria to turn the alcohol into an acid.
It’s easy enough to confuse the two since they often sit side by side at the Asian/Chinese grocery store.
Types of Rice Vinegar:
- Black Rice Vinegar
Black rice vinegar is very popular in Southern China, where chicklang vinegar (Zhenjiang vinegar), the best of the black rice vinegars, is made. Normally black rice vinegar is made with glutinous or sweet rice, although millet or sorghum may be used instead. Dark in colour, it has a deep almost smoky flavour. I personally like black vinegar more than red or white vinegar.
The flavour of black vinegar is mellower and sweeter than the other two type of vinegars. I love to use black vinegar to cook my favourite dish “Shanghai Style Sweet and Sour Pork”.
The aged process also gives black vinegar a strong and unique fragrance. I often call it Chinese balsamic vinegar. You can also substitute black vinegar with balsamic vinegar if you have difficulty getting hold of Chinese black vinegar.
- Red Rice Vinegar
This is another vinegar that is dark coloured, but lighter than black rice vinegar. In any event, you’ll never get the two mixed up once you have tasted red rice vinegar. It has an intriguing combination of tart and sweet. Red rice vinegar can be used as a substitute for black vinegar by adding a bit of sugar. It also makes a very good dipping sauce and you can also use it in noodles, soups and seafood dishes.
Two of the brands of red rice vinegar that I really like are Pearl River Bridge and Koon Chun from Hong Kong.
- White Rice Vinegar
This is a colourless liquid, higher in vinegar content and more similar in flavour to regular vinegar. Nonetheless, it is still less acidic and milder in flavour than white wine vinegar. There is also a hint of sweetness that comes from the glutinous rice. The higher vinegar content of white rice vinegar makes it the best choice for Cantonese style sweet and sour dishes, and for pickling vegetables. It generally works well in stir-fries. The best brand is Pearl River Bridge.
Don’t think you need to limit your use of rice vinegar to Chinese dishes. Creative cooks have used it to spice up everything from stewed ribs to barbecue rubs. A few tablespoons of tart rice vinegar adds a wicked kick to salad dressing and Japanese rice vinegar is one of the secret ingredients in sushi rice.
Example of recipes that using Chinese rice vinegars:
Taiwanese Style Kimchi (pickled vegetable)
Steamed Eggplant With Asian Dressing
Rice Vinegar Recipes From Other About Guides