Visit Zhenjiang or you’ll eat vinegar

A detailed desciption of a visit to a vinegar museum in Zhenjiang.

China loves vinegar. If I was asked to name two vinegar-related locations a foodie pilgrim should visit, one would be central Shanxi Province with Taiyuan and its vicinities and the other would be the city of Zhenjiang in Jiangsu Province. In this article, I will take you to the latter.

Zhenjiang fragrant vinegar (镇江香醋, sometimes rendered in English as “Chinkiang vinegar”) is famous. Not many Chinese products enjoy a comparable world-wide fame. So is it: Europe has Modena (Italian town esteemed for its balsamic vinegar) and China has Zhenjiang? I would say that in China vinegars from Shanxi and from Zhenjiang are considered equally well-established. The former rules the North and the latter is king in the South. But outside of the Middle Kingdom, Shanxi vinegar is almost unknown. I don’t have an answer for this puzzle. Maybe it is so because the most influential part of the Chinese diaspora hails from the South and hence shaped the cookbooks with a Southern sentiment? The fact is that “Chinkiang vinegar” is well known around the planet.

Zhenjiang excels in vinegar since centuries. The oldest surviving manufacturer is Hengshun 恒顺, established in 1840. After the nationalisation in the 1950s, it has absorbed many smaller vinegar workshops and grew into a true mammoth of a company. Net assets and profits-wise, it is one of the largest and most efficient corporations in the Chinese food industry. But why exactly am I starting my article by mentioning Hengshun? Because of the foodie must-go Vinegar Museum on its factory grounds.

The museum’s full name is China Zhenjiang Vinegar Culture Museum, 中国镇江醋文化博物馆. It is located in Zhenjiang’s suburbs, in a large industrial park to which Hengshun moved at the beginning of the 21st century. A visit to the museum takes a form of a guided tour that walks you through several museum rooms and a replica of an old workshop, then lets you have a glimpse of the modern factory before finishing in the Experience Hall where you can learn more about the company and its products (and buy them). This formula is good and well played, but the museum has some disadvantages. The display is diverse and absorbing but rather old fashioned and sometimes messy. Almost no label has English text on it. If you don’t understand Chinese (or have trouble with Chinese scientific jargon thrown at you with light speed), I would recommend contacting the place ahead to organize a separate tour in English or bringing an interpreter with yourself. The overall experience is very positive regardless. It is simply a definite must go for any foodie!

The first rooms are devoted to history. Although there is no consensus about when and were vinegar appeared for the first time, we know that it developed from alcohol beverages fermented from fruits and/or cereals. Ancient Mesopotamians produced it from wine made from dates and grapes, Xia Dynasty Chinese manufactured it from alcohol brewed from cereals. Chinese mythology holds that alcoholic beverages were invented by a man called Dukang 杜康, today a patron saint of Chinese and Japanese winemakers. One time, in an act of carelessness, his son Heita 黑塔 let a liquor vat to spoil, accidentally inventing vinegar.

The guide didn’t stop at every infoboard, but I managed to photograph all of them to read at home. The boards introduce at least one quotation or anecdote from each of the major Chinese dynastic periods. We learn about a Zhou Dynasty office (called 醯人) that took care of sour/acidic products production and supply, Tang era tea lovers adding vinegar to tea and Ming period physicians using vinegar in prescriptions.

[ Language corner:  Different characters were used to refer to vinegar over the time: before Zhou 酰 was used, 酢 appears in Han sources next to 苦酒, and after the Song era 酢 evolved into  醋 that we use today. ]

The origin of one of the most famous Chinese idioms is also explained: Emperor Taizong of Tang wanted to reward his prime minister Fang Xuanling with beautiful women. Fang’s wife reacted in an over-my-dead-body fashion. Literally: she said that she’d rather die than agree. The emperor replied, “there is a cup of poisonous wine on the table. If you drink it, I will agree with your request and will not let your husband keep concubines.” The wife drunk it all at once without any hesitation. Seeing that, the emperor laughed and revealed that it was no poison, it was just vinegar! Since then, “eating vinegar” (吃醋, chī cù) means jealousy or being jealous in the Chinese language.

At the peak of China’s feudal socio-economic development in the early and mid-Qing, a “ vinegar scene” was already well solidified, with schools and varieties that would persist to this day. Zhenjiang fragrant vinegar, Shanxi aged vinegar, Zhejiang “rose” rice vinegar, Baoning bran vinegar, Fujian red yeast rice vinegar and others have already emerged in that period. The “vinegar map of china” at the end of the museum’s history section may not be beautifully designed, but it helps to put them in a geographical context.

Some space in the museum is dedicated to the local culinary culture. There is a list of popular Zhenjiang dishes and some examples of folklore are explained, like the “Twelve Reds”, a custom of eating red-colored things during Dragon Boat Festival. Obviously, the pre-eminent Three Oddities of Zhenjiang 镇江三怪 are highlighted here as well. Especially that vinegar is one of them:

  • 面锅里煮锅盖 “lid is boiled inside the pot” concerns the tradition of putting a small lid to float on the water surface while cooking noodles;
  • 肴肉不当菜 “meat is not a dish” ridicules the fact that the famous local terrine (meat jelly) is a side rather than the main dish;
  • 香醋摆不坏 “vinegar won’t go bad” refers to vinegar’s aging ability.

(You may want to read my other article, where I elaborate on the Three Oddities and descibe my visit to Zhenjiang. Click here!)

The tour continues to a replica of “ye olde” workshop where we learn about the traditional way of manufacturing vinegar. This is probably the most arresting part of the museum. Huge wooden steamers and large earthenware vats filled with cereals stand in halls designed to recreate a Qing Dynasty feel. The vinegar production methods employed here are the ones used until the early 20th century. The whole space is filled with striking vinegary aroma. For chemistry buffs and flavor scientists there’s a board explaining fermentation mechanisms and analyzing flavor profiles.

Our guide describes the consecutive production stages and leads the group to a bar, where paper cups filled with differently flavored vinegar samples are ready for us to try: original, garlic, job’s tears, black soybean, yellow soybean.

We then proceed outdoors, pass rows of earthen jars with maturing vinegar, and head to another building where we will have a glimpse of the modern factory. The production line is visible through a transparent wall. Getting from an old workshop to a hall filled with modern machinery is like a small travel in time.

A series of corridors brings us to the last rooms. The display leaves no doubt: Hengshun is a really huge company with a plethora of products. Different variations of dark and light soy sauce, sesame oil and cooking wine accompany a seemingly endless list of vinegars. They are divided into flavors, functions, health benefits and vintages. There’s a dressing vinegar, a dumpling-dedicated vinegar and a crab-dedicated vinegar. There’s goji-flavored, “healthy honey” and maca-infused vinegars. There’s 3-, 6-, 10- and 12-years aged varieties. Next to the dozens of black vinegar types, Hengshun also produces white vinegar and apple vinegar. Plus sauces, soft drinks, candies, you name it. It started from a small manufacture and became a mammoth of a company. With no real competition, Hengshun is now a local monopolist and the sole heir to the tradition.

The main raw material is glutinous rice. The production takes several weeks and involves more than 40 procedures. It is then followed by aging – the vinegar will be stored in pottery containers for more than half a year or even for several years before it leaves the factory. The longer it is matured, the more mellow taste it is suppose to achieve. “Sour but not astringent, fragrant and slightly sweet, strong in color and fresh in taste.”

Zhenjiang is not a big city, but one thing is certain: its name is immortalized on a bottle. Other cities can “eat vinegar” – envy.

1 Comment

  1. […] while in the town. Such a prime foodie pilgrimage destination deserves a separate entry on my blog. Click here to read the article in which I describe the museum and delve into the intricacies of the glorious Zhenjiang fragrant […]

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