All About Chinese Rice Vinegar

Black, Red, and White Varieties From Sweet to Sour

White rice vinegar in bottle and white rice on table
Andy Reynolds / Getty Images

Rice has always played an important role in Chinese cooking and culture. Rice has been used in Chinese cuisine for thousands of years, and their chefs have invented many ways to use rice. One of their most notable inventions is rice vinegar. The Chinese have been using rice to make vinegar for at least 3000 years.

An Endless Variety of Chinese Rice Vinegar

A trip through any Asian/Chinese grocery store or supermarket will quickly reveal how complex the world of rice vinegar has become since those ancient times. There are several basic types of Chinese rice vinegar, along with sweetened varieties that contain everything from sugar to ginger, orange peel, or cloves for added flavor. You can use different kinds of rice vinegar to prepare different kinds of foods in Chinese cooking. Some of the sweetened or flavored varieties can even make a delicious summer drink.

Regional Rice Vinegars

Additional variations result from the region in which they are produced, often with changes in flavor and color. Some of the most well-known regional rice vinegars are these:

  • Shanxi Aged Vinegar: Shanxi aged vinegar is a famous traditional Chinese vinegar that dates back 3,000 years. It is made from different kinds of grain, such as rice, sorghum, barley, bran, and chaff. It’s fermented using solid-state fermentation techniques. The color of Shanxi aged vinegar is dark reddish-brown while its flavor is mellow, sour, and slightly sweet.
  • Zhenjiang Vinegar: Zhenjiang vinegar (chinklang vinegar) is a rice-based black vinegar that’s produced mainly in the city of Zhenjiang in the Jiangsu Province of China. The origin of Zhenjiang vinegar can be traced back to at least 1,400 years BC and tied to the Xia Dynasty period. Legend has it that during the Xia Dynasty, a winemaker was drunk and felt very thirsty so he had a couple of sips of water from a wine-making tank and was surprised by how delicious the water was. The water had a sweet-and-sour taste, and this is how Zhenjiang vinegar was discovered.

Difference Between Rice Wine and Rice Vinegar

Enjoyed by the Chinese for more than 4,000 years, rice wine is made by a fermentation process involving yeast that transforms the sugars from glutinous rice into alcohol. When making rice vinegar, however, the fermentation process goes one step further, adding bacteria to turn the alcohol into an acid. It’s easy enough to confuse the two since they often sit side by side at the Asian/Chinese grocery store.

There are three main types of rice vinegar.

Black Rice Vinegar

  • Black rice vinegar is very popular in Southern China, where chicklang vinegar (Zhenjiang vinegar), the best of the black rice vinegar, is made.
  • Normally black rice vinegar is made with glutinous or sweet rice, although millet or sorghum may be used instead. Dark in color, it has a deep almost smoky flavor.
  • The flavor of black vinegar is mellower and sweeter than the other two types of vinegar. 
  • The aged process also gives black vinegar a robust and unique fragrance. Some call it Chinese balsamic vinegar. If you can't find Chinese black vinegar for a recipe, you can, in fact, substitute balsamic vinegar.

Red Rice Vinegar

  • This is another vinegar that is dark in color, but lighter than black rice vinegar.
  • Its taste has an intriguing combination of tart and sweet.
  • Red rice vinegar can be used as a substitute for black vinegar by adding a bit of sugar. It also makes a delicious dipping sauce, and you also can use it in noodles, soups, and seafood dishes.

White Rice Vinegar

  • This is a colorless liquid, higher in vinegar content, and more similar in flavor to regular vinegar.
  • It is still less acidic and milder in flavor than white-wine vinegar. There is also a hint of sweetness that comes from the glutinous rice.
  • The higher vinegar content of white rice vinegar makes it the best choice for Cantonese-style sweet-and-sour dishes and for pickling vegetables. It generally works well in stir-fries.

Get Creative

Don’t think you need to limit your use of rice vinegar to Chinese dishes. Creative cooks have used it to spice up everything from stewed ribs to barbecue rubs. A few tablespoons of tart rice vinegar adds a wicked kick to salad dressing, and Japanese rice vinegar is one of the secret ingredients in sushi rice.