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烏醋: The Odyssey of Taiwanese Black Vinegar
Plus Yun Hai red envelopes for Year of the Rabbit designed by o.oo
This month, we’re launching Wu Yin Vinegars, a line of traditional vinegars that include both a traditional seasoned rice vinegar and the more elusive Taiwanese Black Vinegar, one of the most familiar flavors in the Taiwanese palate. Today, I take a deep dive into the history (no, the odyssey) of Taiwanese Black Vinegar, which literally journeyed the earth to become what it is today.
I also share beautiful red envelopes made in collaboration with our design BFFs, Taiwanese design studio o.oo, who I recently visited in Taiwan. Lunar New Year is around the corner—keep an eye out for more updates from us!
For me, trying to understand Taiwanese food is like shining light into a prism: it splits into a rainbow on the wall, revealing its true composition, built over centuries.
Enter Taiwanese black vinegar 烏醋.
In the world of Chinese cooking, there are four major types of black vinegars: Zhenjiang 鎭江香醋 (the most common black vinegar in the US—made from glutinous rice and wheat bran), Baoning 保寧醋 (multigrain with medicinal herbs), Shanxi Aged Vinegar 山西老陳醋 (sorghum, wheat, barley, bran, and pea—it’s smokey), and Fujian Yongchun 福建永春老醋 (which takes its color from the Monascus fungus). People sometimes sub these in for one another—Zhenjiang is often used interchangeably with Baoning here in the States.
But Taiwanese Black Vinegar is the wild child of the Black Vinegar family, more analogous to Worcestershire sauce than the Chinese grain vinegars it’s associated with. Worcestershire is made by steeping malt vinegar with anchovies, tamarind, and other spices and seasonings. Similarly, Taiwanese black vinegar is vinegar that’s been steeped with fruits, vegetables, and herbs; the formula varies by region and manufacturer.
You can’t really swap it with the other Chinese black vinegars—people have given it a bad rap in online forums because of this misunderstanding. Clarissa Wei wrote an article on the differences for Bon Appétit, which is one of few illuminating resources in the English language. Evidence of the Worcestershire connection is everywhere. Check your Chinese grocery for Worcestershire and it might say Black Vinegar on it in Chinese. This is not a mistranslation.
This fact is easy enough to accept, and knowing it makes shopping for the right vinegar much easier. But what’s going on here? How did Worcestershire sauce become one of the predominant seasonings in Taiwan? And why is it called vinegar?
Here’s where the whole prism thing starts to happen; let’s shine a light.
In the late 1800s, Worcestershire sauce from Britain became wildly popular in Japan. Folks set up manufacturing and tweaked it for the local palate, swapping the tamarind for apples and plums, for example. 120 years on, it’s a staple in Japanese cuisine. Many well known Japanese sauces are derived from Worcestershire sauce, including tonkatsu, okonomiyaki, and yakisoba sauce. Bull-Dog is the most recognizable brand, you may even have this in your pantry already.
Taiwan was occupied by Japan from 1895-1945, around the same time that Worcestershire sauce really gained its footing in Japanese food. It was introduced to Taiwan by the Japanese, and Taiwanese people started to produce their own Worcestershire sauce locally. When migrants came from China after the Japanese occupation, confusion ensued, and this sauce began to be known as black vinegar, or wu cu 烏醋. The connection is still strong, if not widely published; if you search for wu cu 烏醋 on Taiwanese shopping sites, you’ll sometimes see Japanese worcestershire sauce come up. Interestingly, most Chinese black vinegars are known as hei cu 黑醋 (translates to black vinegar) vs wu cu 烏醋, (wu means dark, but is also the word for crow). This terminology is also sometimes used to refer to the Fujianese Yongkang vinegar.
Worcestershire sauce was introduced to Taiwan a second time when the KMT established itself in Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War. This time the sauce came by way of Shanghai, where it was also introduced in the early 1900s and was a favorite at Western-style steakhouses and was incorporated into Shanghainese food. It was sold as 梅林辣醬油 or Meilin Hot Soy Sauce, though there is no soy in it. Production was eventually localized in Taiwan and it’s still sold as “hot soy sauce” today.
Other black vinegars also exist in Taiwan. Gao Ji Wu Yin (the vinegar maker I’m about to introduce) has produced a ‘true’ Chinese Black Vinegar since 1903. Other regional varieties are spiked with a concoction of medicinal herbs which may be related to vinegar making practices in China. I brought back a local bottle from Taichung that’s highly acidic and intensely herbal. I’d lovingly describe it as the Malört of Taiwanese black vinegars (I’m team Malört, in case you couldn’t tell).
To put a beautiful end cap on all of this: the origins of Worcestershire sauce are in fish sauce, which traveled the world and influenced the development of all kinds of condiments—not just Worcestershire, but also ketchup, which used to contain anchovies but evolved into the fish-free, vinegar-based recipe we know (and love?) today. The word for ketchup is derived from the word kê-tsiap, which means fermented fish sauce in Hokkien, which is also the basis for the Taiwanese language. Next time you plop your soup dumplings in Taiwanese Worcestershire sauce, feel the vastness of history open before you.
Gao Ji Wu Yin: Vinegar since 1903
And here’s the part of the newsletter where I get to tell you that we’re now offering vinegar from one of the oldest vinegar makers in Taiwan, Gao Ji Wu Yin Vinegar 高記五印醋. We’ve imported two kinds: Taiwanese Black Vinegar, in the style described above, and a Seasoned Rice Vinegar, suitable for use anywhere that white rice vinegar is called for. Both are made in a traditional manner that relies on an acetic acid bacteria culture that’s been in use for over 100 years.
Gao Ji Wu Yin vinegars are in use by some of the oldest and most well known eateries in Taiwan. The beloved noodle shop Du Xiao Yue 台南度小月擔仔麵 in Tainan uses Wu Yin Vinegar in their Dan Zai Mian 擔仔麵, one of Taiwan’s most iconic street foods. Din Tai Fung used it back in their mom-and-pop days on Yongkang street, too.
A defining characteristic of Gao Ji Wu Yin vinegars (other than the top-notch flavor, complexity, and mouthfeel) is the use of sprouted wheatgrass in the fermentation process. Enzymes from the wheatgrass catalyze the conversion of rice into alcohol, a traditional way of making vinegar that’s related to, but not exactly the same, as using malted grain.
This is how the vinegar is produced: first, steamed glutinous rice (Taiwan grown!), wheatgrass, and water are mixed into a mash. The wheatgrass is sprouted in-house and plucked, wheatberry and all, before being mixed with the rice. The mash ferments anaerobically for two weeks, while the wheatgrass enzymes and naturally-occuring yeast convert the starches into alcohol. Just as red wine is the precursor to red wine vinegar, this boozy mash gives rise to rice vinegar.
The next step in vinegar making is converting the alcohol into acetic acid. The liquids are moved into a new terracotta vat; a starter culture of acetic acid bacteria is introduced; and the brew ferments for 8 months, until no alcohol remains. Wu Yin has been using the same bacteria culture for over 100 years—it’s transferred from one batch of vinegar to the next. It’s also present in the pores of the terracotta vessels.
Wu Yin makes all its vinegars this way. After fermentation is complete, the vinegar is processed into a range of vinegar styles, from drinking vinegars to Taiwanese black vinegar. To make a classic seasoned rice vinegar, the brew is simply salted. A Chinese-style black vinegar is produced by adding caramel color (made literally by caramelizing sugar) and licorice extract. Making Taiwanese black vinegar is more complex—it’s made from matured fruit vinegars, black vinegar, and white vinegar, and a house mix of seasoning.
Wu Yin Taiwanese Black Vinegar
Wu Yin calls their Black Vinegar "萬用醋” or “vinegar with ten thousand uses.” This hints at how pervasive Taiwanese Black Vinegar is in the cuisine. The vinegar was developed for a Japanese tonkatsu shop, and contains ume plums, green Taiwan lemons, and pomelos, which are matured separately for a year, each in its own vat of Wu Yin vinegar. Then, the fruit vinegars, black vinegar, and white vinegar are mixed together and seasoned.
It’s got a tangy, fruity taste that goes perfectly with Taiwanese food, but also great as a seasoning for grilled meats or cold salads. You could use it as a vegan sub for Worcestershire or in Japanese recipes for tonkatsu sauce and yakisoba. Try making a bloody mary with it. Compared to other vinegars, it’s very low in acid, only 3.1%.
Wu Yin Seasoned Rice Vinegar
This white vinegar is one of the original Wu Yin vinegars, an exemplar of a classic seasoned rice vinegar. It’s bright and fruity with a natural sweetness that’s perfect for sushi rice or dumpling dipping sauces. Use it anywhere rice vinegar is called for—it will make your smashed cucumber salads and Szechuan stir fried potatoes sing.
It's fuller-bodied than conventional rice vinegars, with a layered flavor and natural sweetness from the wheatgrass. You can tell the quality by its texture; it’s slightly viscous even though there’s no added sugar. The syrupy texture coats the food and sticks to the senses, and the color is naturally a warm, toasty brown. This has a similar acid level to other rice vinegars at 4.5%.
Yun Hai x O.oo Year of the Rabbit Red Envelopes
It is that time of the year, when Lunar New Year is around the bend and we’re all lining up at the bank for crisp new bills to fill red envelopes. (For the uniniated: Red envelopes are exchanged during the Lunar New Year as a way to give "lucky money;" the gift symbolizes good wishes for the year ahead. Gift even numbers like $2, $16, $20, $88, avoid any 4s, and always use fresh new bills.)
This year, we made our very own Year of the Rabbit Red Envelopes 紅包袋 in collaboration with our close friends and designers o.oo. Each set contains six envelopes with three different designs, featuring traditional Lunar New Year iconography and wishes of good fortune.
Inspired by the traditional Lunar New Year craft of Chinese paper cutting, the designers hand cut each element from paper before placing them into a modern graphic pattern (like confetti falling on a page), then printing them with a risograph machine in their studio in Taipei.
Lunar New Year Symbolism
The icons used by o.oo all have symbolic meanings relating to good luck:
Red is a lucky color in Chinese culture and also wards off evil spirits
Rabbit is the zodiac animal of the coming year
Coins and gold ingots are lucky money
Lanterns stand for Lantern Festival, celebrated on the last day of the Lunar New Year period
Fireworks scare away evil spirits
The Upside down Spring 春 character means "spring has arrived"
Each envelope is also adorned with a couplet, pertaining especially to the Year of the Rabbit:
金兔報喜: Golden Rabbit Brings Good Tidings
兔然暴富: In The Year of Rabbit Sudden Riches
兔來運轉: May Rabbit Bring a Lucky Break
What’s a risograph?
Risograph printing can be thought of as cross between screen printing and a xerox machine, or digital screen printing. It’s known for the bright and vivid quality of the color, the texture of the inks, and its simple printing technology. Though it was originally created as a simple and economic printing method, it has created a culture of experimentation and improvisation among designers. It’s as useful for printing pizza menus as experimental red envelopes. o.oo are excellent risograph printers and have mastered the art. They even wrote a book about it: No Magic in Riso, which is distributed all over the world.
By the way, we will be doing pineapple cake pickups at the store and there will be a whole new line of QQ zodiac merch coming soon. Stay tuned, and let the Lunar New Year celebrations begin.
Kê-tsiap with ya later,
Lisa Cheng Smith
P.S. We have amassed almost 10,000 subscribers to this newsletter (just in time for the 10,000 use vinegar). Help us get there by spreading the word!
Editing and content support by Lillian Lin, Jeremy Hersh, and Luke Miller. Thanks to Rich Shih for the fermentation expertise. Grateful to Leh Lin and Jess Eng for visiting the vinegar maker during mash making. Got a question, a topic you want covered, or have something to share? Reply to this email and let me know. I crave attention.
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