Sourcing Zhenjiang Vinegar (Chinkiang Vinegar)
Zhenjiang Vinegar: Accept No Substitutes~~
If I had to choose just one Chinese ingredient that everyone should have in their pantry (other than Chinese-made soy sauce, of course), it would be Zhenjiang black vinegar. In our household we use as much Chinese black rice vinegar as soy sauce. We even use as much Zhenjiang vinegar as chili sauces and oils, which is saying something. In fact, the three mixed together are our go-to dipping sauce for dumplings. And many Chinese use just black vinegar as their dipping sauce of choice.
Zhenjiang vinegar is regarded by many in China as the best and is, in my opinion, the best available in the U.S. (although there are other famous vinegars from other regions; more on that later). It’s from Zhenjiang City—formerly romanized as Chinkiang—in the eastern province of Jiangsu, which is not far from Shanghai.
Hengshun, established in 1840, is the major producer of Zhenjiang vinegar, having won numerous brand awards in China over the years. Its vinegar is all natural, fermented from glutinous rice and wheat bran, and goes through a 50-day, 40-step process before it is aged in earthenware crocks for at least half a year. According to my in-house translator FC, its label says it is “sour but not astringent, fragrant and slightly sweet, dark and delicious.” I agree! It is indeed dark and full-bodied, looking a bit like balsamic vinegar, though it tastes nothing like balsamic and they do not make good substitutions for each other.
As with other artisan Chinese products, we do not get the long-aged, top-of-the-line vinegars in the U.S. However, over the past couple of years premium, three-year-aged and six-year-aged Hengshun vinegar has appeared on our shores. And as of December 2016, we are selling the six-year-old version in our Sichuan Specialty Food Shop. It’s darker, fuller-bodied and more natural tasting than the younger Zhenjiang vinegar.
Black vinegar is truly irreplaceable in Sichuan cuisine, though Sichuanese normally use their own famous black vinegar, Baoning. In fact, on a recent Chengdu trip I saw not even one bottle of Zhenjiang vinegar, the supermarket shelves being crowded with local vinegars. Baoning is also becoming more frequently available in the U.S. Almost every cold noodle dish in Sichuan will have black vinegar in the sauce, and any dish that leans toward sweet and sour, such as “yu xiang” dishes, relies on black vinegar for the sour note. The exception is dishes that need to remain light colored, for which white rice vinegar will be used.
The Chinese believe all vinegars to be good for you and often take them as drinks, but Baoning goes a step further with this tonic and traditionally includes more than 60 Chinese medicines and herbs. I love the idea of that, but in a side-by-side taste test of one version of Baoning sold in the U.S., it proved to be lighter in color and body and much more acidic than Zhenjiang. It actually did not list herbs as ingredients, but only wheat bran, wheat and rice. To my taste buds, the more mellow, sweeter Zhenjiang is better for dipping and making sauces, though I remain on the lookout for a less acidic Baoning.
Updated December 2016