Sourcing Zhenjiang Vinegar (Chinkiang Vinegar)
Zhenjiang Vinegar: One of China’s Four Famous Vinegars
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 black vinegar. In our household we use as much Chinese black vinegar as soy sauce. We even use as much black 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 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. 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 does not taste like balsamic and they do not make good substitutions for each other.
When I first wrote this post, in 2014, it was easy to find Hengshun’s mass-market line of vinegar in Asian markets in the U.S. As with other artisan Chinese products, however, we did not get the long-aged, top-of-the-line vinegars in the U.S. Shortly after that though, premium 3-year-aged and 6-year-aged Hengshun vinegar appeared on our shores, and we began selling the 6-year at The Mala Market. It’s darker, fuller-bodied and more natural tasting than the younger Zhenjiang vinegar.
Sichuan Baoning vinegar
Similarly, Sichuan Baoning vinegar was sometimes seen on Asian supermarket shelves back then, but always in its youngest form. We set out to change that by importing Baoning’s premium, handcrafted, long-aged products into the U.S. for the first time. We are now the exclusive importers of a 3-year Baoning and a super-premium 10-year Baoning.
Black vinegar is truly irreplaceable in Sichuan cuisine, and Sichuanese normally use their own vinegar. In fact, on a recent Chengdu trip I saw not even one bottle of Zhenjiang vinegar, the supermarket shelves being crowded with local vinegars. 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 “yuxiang” 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 pride of Langzhong, an ancient city in northeastern Sichuan, Baoning vinegar traces its history to 936 A.D., 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, Sichuan Intangible Cultural Heritage, and gold-medal Green Food, China’s pollution-free designation.
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.
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 fermentation starter, which—uniquely among Chinese vinegars—is created from more than 60 Chinese spices and medicinal herbs.
Should you choose Zhenjiang or Baoning?
Our answer to that question is both! It’s like asking if you should use red-wine vinegar or balsamic, both of which you probably have in your cupboard and choose for different dishes and tastes. Of course the Chinese grain vinegars are not directly comparable to the European grape vinegars (and certainly not interchangeable with them), but they are analogous in that Baoning is bright and savory, while Zhenjiang is fuller and slightly sweet from added sugar and salt.
They simply taste different from each other and from the other Chinese vinegars. Ideally, you’d 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).
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!)
It’s also hard to found premium products here in Europe :/
Looks like the US Importer also sells a 6 years aged vinegar
Oooh, thanks for the heads-up, Christophe! I’ll keep an eye out for the 6-year-old. Good luck with your own search!