What Is Chinese Black Vinegar?
Hailing from a town in the Eastern part of China called Zhenjiang, Chinkiang vinegar (also called “black vinegar” or “Chinese brown rice vinegar”) is a staple of Chinese cuisine, and it’s worth having in your pantry.
Americans may have encountered black vinegar on the table at a Chinese restaurant, or alongside their soup dumplings (called xiao long bao in China) in a small bowl flecked with shredded ginger. Dark, unctuous, and lightly acidic, it makes an ideal foil for fatty, plush dumplings, and it’s a handy staple to have for homemade Chinese cookery.
To find it, poke around a large gourmet grocery store or an Asian market; a bottle labeled “Chinkiang vinegar” with a bright-yellow label is the one you’ll most commonly spy. As Fuchsia Dunlop notes in the excellent cookbook Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking, “the best is made from fermented glutinous rice with charred rice used to give a deep brown color,” but some supermarkets will also have a more generic brown rice vinegar.
Hannah Cheng, who co-owns and cooks alongside her sister Marian at Mimi Cheng’s Dumplings in New York City, uses Chinkiang black vinegar every single day. “It’s a great way to add acid to compliment dishes that have a soy sauce base,” she says. The sisters also use it to “brighten” stir-fries and hot dishes, such as “spicy chili noodles that have pickled cabbage, cilantro, scallions, and chile oil.”
Cheng likes its subtlety and earthiness, distinguishing it from, say, a Champagne vinegar by noting that the latter “hits you higher in the nose—I don’t know that that’s a technical term, but that’s the feeling I get.” (Dunlop also writes about the vinegar’s “mellow, complex flavor and a relatively light acidity.”)
Although you’ll see some recipes call for balsamic vinegar as a substitute, know that balsamic tends to be sweeter; it’s definitely a different flavor. Often soy and black vinegar will mingle in a sauce, and black vinegar is typically used as a finisher as opposed to a starting flavor (a fairly classic use of acid in hot food). Occasionally, though, you’ll see it used to simmer or marinate a fatty meat, as in this five-spice pork dish. More often, it’ll make cameos in dipping sauces for homemade scallion pancakes (alongside oyster sauce and sweet soy), or as a last touch, as in these stir-fried green beans.
So pick up an inexpensive bottle if you spy one, as it’s worth experimenting with for any noodle, rice, or Asian dish you’re dreaming up at home.