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We’ve all seen bottles of expensive imported aged balsamic vinegar at Italian and specialty markets, bottles that cost more than a comparable amount of high-end perfume. I won’t be dabbing the dark stuff on my wrists anytime soon, but I always wondered if there was a cheaper alternative when I need the flavor services of deep, quality vinegar without emptying my wallet. Enter Chinese black vinegar. Don’t call it soy sauce.

Black vinegar is similar to regular rice vinegar (both are made from rice) but black vinegar is aged for a more mellow, complex and rich flavor as well as enhanced nutrient content, while rice vinegar maintains its sharpness and has a narrower flavor profile. When you need a vinegar sour enough to curl your hair, straight-up unaged rice is the way to go. But for a soba noodle, summer roll or dumpling dipping sauce, you’ll want something more subdued so you can… you know, taste the food. If you’re making an Asian-themed meat dish that could benefit from a reduction or gastrique, using black vinegar will enhance, rather than drown out your flavors.      

Why use it instead of balsamic? Other than in protest of the $75 bottles the size of hotel shampoos that come in their own limited-edition hand-numbered glass cases? The same reason you drink beer, surprisingly: rich, malty flavors, a slight sweetness, lots of flavor variation between brands — and even regions of China — and even the good stuff is still less expensive than booze of the vine.  

Additionally, black vinegar has been praised for its health benefits for centuries. It can be diluted down with water and juices into a “drinking vinegar,” a refreshing and surprisingly flavorful tonic said to relieve everything from high blood pressure to athlete’s foot. 

But does it clean windows? 

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