"It's like balsamic; I like it a lot," pronounced Paul Bertolli, chef at Berkeley's Chez Panisse restaurant, after sampling China's famous Zhejiang vinegar. Bertolli has an interest in fine vinegars and has recently purchased for the restaurant balsamic vinegars that date back to 1630.
So, it was logical to have him sample the Zhejiang vinegar. I did scrape off the 89-cent price tag so as not to influence him.
Bertolli's response wasn't surprising. Other food experts have had similar reactions, and Barbara Tropp, in her book "The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking," recommends using a good balsamic when Zhejiang is not available.
Zhejiang, on China's north coast, is one of the great vinegar-producing regions in China. The best of its products are aged and have a wonderfully complex, smoky flavor that is lightly and pleasantly bitter. Good Zhejiang vinegar is available at many Chinese food stores, unlike fine vinegar from other regions, such as Shanxi near Peking where chefs add vinegar to practically every dish -- they even poach eggs in it.
You will find some differences between Zhejiang and balsamic vinegars. Zhejiang is not as sweet for one; it's not a fruit vinegar. But if you appreciate fine vinegars, you'll love it and want to experiment with it, and not just for Chinese cooking.
Zhejiang is one of the dark, malty vinegars sometimes labeled "black vinegar." Although some otherwise authoritative Chinese cookbooks call all Chinese vinegars rice vinegars, fine dark vinegars from Northern China are usually made from grains. Wheat, millet and sorghum are used, and the best are aged for years. The Chinese do make grape vinegars but in limited quantities.
Other flavorful black vinegars on the market include: Tientsin Vinegar, a good all-purpose grain vinegar that's not nearly as interesting as the Zhejiang, and Narcissus Brand "Yongchun Laogu," which is a fine, aged vinegar. Both are from China.
The following easily made western eggplant dish is a good introduction to black vinegar. You'll see that you can use it as you would any flavorful vinegar.
SIMPLE SAUTEED EGGPLANT (3 to 4 servings)
1 1/4 pound eggplant
3 tablespoons black vinegar, preferably Gold-Plum "Chinkiang"
2 teaspoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon crushed, dried chili pepper
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
Cut the eggplant in half and then into wedges no more than 1/2-inch wide. Cut the wedges into 2-by- 1/2-inch strips. Mix the vinegar, sugar and salt and set aside.
Heat the skillet over medium high heat and add the oil. When hot, add the eggplant and cook, stirring constantly, about 5 minutes or until lightly browned and thoroughly wilted. Add the pepper and stir briefly. Add the vinegar mixture and cook another minute or two until the liquid is thoroughly absorbed. Stir in the parsley and turn off the heat. Serve warm or allow to cool to room temperature.