Grain-based black vinegar (醋, cù) is a fixture of Chinese pantries that adds a rich, slightly sweet, tangy flavor to raw salads and cooked dishes. The same Maillard reaction that turns your onions into sweet, concentrated slivers of caramelized flavor is responsible for black vinegar’s deep umami. Often compared to balsamic vinegar due to its aging process, Chinese black vinegar relies on whole-grain fermentation instead of the liquid fermentation that balsamic vinegar grapes go through. The flavor profile of the two are completely different. And just like Western pantries call for an A-Z variety of vinegars, from apple cider to balsamic to red wine and sherry and more, Chinese pantries distinguish between the multiple kinds of Chinese vinegars—of which many are black, but not all. 

Typically, rice is the predominant vinegar-making grain used in southern China, while sorghum is common in the North. Wheat bran, barley, millet and other grains are also used. Vinegar appears in written annals of Chinese history dating back at least 3,000 years, including within an entire volume of Jia Sixie’s famous《齐民要术》(Qímín Yàoshù, ~6th century CE, Northern Wei Dynasty) agricultural treatise. The book records 22 different forms of ancient vinegar production (and cites 200 other ancient books itself). 

Chinese black vinegars are no monolith either. Although what has commonly been available to consumers in the international market may lead you to believe that Chinese vinegar is synonymous with Zhenjiang or “Chinkiang” vinegar—the popular, all-purpose Chinese black vinegar, made from glutinous rice—there are many, many more. Of these, you can find all three black vinegars of China’s “Famous Four Vinegars” at The Mala Market: Sichuan Baoning vinegar, Zhenjiang vinegar and Shanxi mature vinegar. The final of the four is Fujian’s Yongchun red vinegar.

Sichuan Baoning Vinegar

The pride of Langzhong, an ancient city in northeastern Sichuan, Baoning vinegar traces its history to 936 C.E., during the Five Dynasties period. Its modern accolades begin with a gold medal at the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair, and since then it has racked up China’s highest honors, including China Time-Honored Brand, National Intangible Cultural Heritage, and gold-medal Green Food, China’s pollution-free designation.

The company attributes its legendary vinegar partly to Langzhong’s location in the “golden brewing belt” at 37 degrees north latitude. It has a humid climate, abundant sunshine and a frost-free period of more than 290 days—a magical environment for the wild fermentation that gives Baoning its unique profile.

While this kind of history for a food brand is kind of unfathomable in the West, we believe it can be tasted in today’s product. It’s hard to describe Baoning vinegar’s smell, but whiffing a vinegar aged for 10 years smells a bit like walking into an ancient vinegar workshop and breathing in the centuries.

Baoning vinegar workers
Baoning Vinegar workers present the year’s new batch to the Vinegar God. Image source: Sichuan Baoningcu Co.

Sichuan Baoning Premium 3-Year and 10-Year Aged Black Vinegar

Deep red-brown and full-bodied, its taste is more savory than sweet, and the multigrain composition—rice, bran, wheat, corn, sorghum and buckwheat—hits the nose and palate in unfamiliar but intriguing ways. Part of the intrigue also turns out to be its “qu” fermentation starter, which, uniquely among Chinese (and world) vinegars, is created from more than 60 Chinese spices and medicinal herbs. It then ages for years—the longer the better—in earthenware crocks that lend it additional depth.

Non-GMO, Vegan, China-certified Green Food

Classic Chinese Black Vinegar Dishes

Zhenjiang Vinegar (香醋, xiāngcù)

Zhenjiang vinegar is one of China’s Four Famous Vinegars—along with Sichuan Baoning, Shanxi mature vinegar and Fujian’s Yongchun red vinegar—and the most well-known of the four in the West. It’s from Zhenjiang City—formerly romanized as Chinkiang—in the eastern province of Jiangsu, which is not far from Shanghai. The vinegar is still often called Chinkiang in the West. In China, it’s known as 香醋 (xiāngcù), “fragrant vinegar”.

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 for the supermarket version and much longer for the premium versions.

Wine fermentation is the first step of vinegar production at the Hengshun factory in Jiangsu. Image source:

Zhenjiang Hengshun 6-Year Aged Black Vinegar

The label describes this as “sour but not astringent, fragrant and slightly sweet, dark and delicious.” We agree! It is indeed dark and full-bodied, looking a bit like balsamic vinegar, though it does not taste like balsamic and they do not make good substitutions for each other. The 6-year vinegar is darker and fuller-bodied than the younger Zhenjiang vinegar (aged 6 months). 

Non-GMO, Vegan

Zhenjiang vinegar

Vinegar Liangban Dishes

Shanxi Aged Mature Vinegar (老陈醋, lǎochéncù)

Representing China’s North is Shanxi mature vinegar, the most robust of the famous four. Shanxi province lays claim to the earliest vinegar making in China, dated to the Western Zhou Dynasty (c.11th century-771 B.C.E.), with the brewing production method in place by 1368. Unlike Sichuan, which has only one maker of its famous Baoning vinegar, Shanxi mature vinegar has many authorized makers operating in Taiyuan city, the capital of Shanxi province.

The lead grain of Shanxi mature vinegar is sorghum, with additions of wheat and rice and a 大曲 (dàqū), or fermentation starter, of barley and peas. Like the other famous vinegars, it undergoes completely natural fermentation, enabled by the unique wild yeasts, molds and microbes in its environment—nearly 1,000 kinds of microorganisms. (Talk about terroir!)

Roasted grains darken its color and lend a subtle smokiness unique to Shanxi vinegar. Researchers also attribute Shanxi vinegar’s distinct taste to a higher percentage of daqu in the mix. It has the strongest flavor profile among the famous four and is recommended for dishes with long cook times, as it can stand up to the heat in braised and steamed dishes.

Ninghuafu vinegar follows the traditional production method in old earthen jars. Image source: Taiyuan Ninghuafu Yiyuanqing Vinegar Co. via Beijing Business Today

Shanxi Ninghuafu 9-Year Mature Black Vinegar

The Mala Market is the exclusive importer of the premium Ninghuafu brand. It was founded in 1377 on Ninghuafu Lane as the Yiyuanqing vinegar workshop, but as the vinegar became famous, people always just referred to it as Ninghuafu vinegar, and the name stuck. In fact, people still visit the shop to fill up their bottles on vinegar, as they have for centuries.

All Shanxi vinegar is “mature,” or aged, and our top-of-the-line handcrafted Ninghuafu is aged for a full 9 years. Pay attention to its deep red-brown color, strong fragrance, and the balance of sweet and sour, mellow and intense taste.

Non-GMO, Vegan

Shanxi vinegar

Vegetarian Black Vinegar Recipes

How to Select Chinese Vinegars

Should you choose Zhenjiang, Baoning or Shanxi vinegar?

If you ask us, all of them! It’s like deciding between red-wine vinegar or balsamic, both of which you may have in your cupboard and choose for different dishes and tastes. Baoning is bright and savory, while Zhenjiang is fuller and slightly sweet. And Shanxi is the most intense. Thus, you’ll find Baoning exceptionally suited for dips and dressings, Zhenjiang a workhorse for soups and stir-fries, and Shanxi a nice option for long braises and pressure cooking.

They simply taste different from each other and from the other Chinese vinegars, and each has its own strengths. Morever, everyone has their own preference. You can usually match the vinegar with whatever regional Chinese cuisine you were cooking. But more pragmatically, the premium Chinese vinegars are mostly interchangeable in Chinese cooking when black vinegar is called for (or Zhenjiang vinegar, as recipes written outside China usually specify, since that was the best of what was historically available abroad).

If you want to see someone taste test all Four Famous Vinegars by taking big swigs of each, check out this video by our friends (and affiliates) at Chinese Cooking Demystified. Listen closely and you’ll learn which is Steph’s favorite. (And ours too!)

Cooking and Storage Tips

Chinese black vinegar should be stored in a cool and dry place, away from direct sunlight and heat sources (preferably a closed cupboard or pantry). Ensure the bottle or container is tightly sealed to prevent air from entering and oxidizing the vinegar. Proper sealing helps maintain its flavor and quality. Naturally brewed vinegars do not expire; dark sediment is normal. No refrigeration is necessary.

  • Seasoning and dipping: Use black vinegar to add tanginess and depth of flavor to dishes like dumplings, noodles or cold appetizers.
  • Stir-frying: Add black vinegar toward the end of stir-frying to preserve its flavor.
  • Soups and braises: Use black vinegar in soups or braised dishes to add a tangy note. It can help balance the flavors in rich and hearty dishes.

Sample All Three Long-Aged Black Vinegars in China’s Famous Vinegars Collection

China's famous vinegars

Granted, three bottles of premium Chinese vinegar may be too much for your average cook, but if you are an aficionado of regional Chinese cuisines or a vinegar and fermentation obsessive, then this collection is for you. And, yes, they all taste distinctly different from each other!

China actually has Four Famous Vinegars, and this collection includes the most famous three, including Sichuan’s Baoning vinegar, Shanxi’s Ninghuafu mature vinegar and Jiangsu’s Zhenjiang vinegar.

These vinegars make a literal tour of the country and its cuisines, from Sichuan in the west to Shanxi in the north to Jiangsu in the east. Each company has been making vinegar (as various entities) for hundreds, even thousands, of years, and each bottle is their top-of-the-line commercial offering, aged from 6 to 10 years. The Mala Market is the exclusive U.S. importer of the Sichuan Baoning and Shanxi Ninghuafu aged vinegars.

All How to Cook With Chinese Black Vinegars