What is it?
A rich, dark vinegar with a lingering smoky sweetness; northern China's knee-jerk accompaniment to dumplings, noodles, soups and braised eggplant dishes. The best is Chinkiang (Zhen Jiang) vinegar from the eastern province of Jiangsu, made from black glutinous rice, water, sugar and salt.
Why do I care?
Because it's black magic. Just a dash transforms oysters, soups and noodle dishes, cuts through fatty pork and does wonders for salads. Serious addicts carry a small bottle at all times in case they meet a boring dumpling.
Can I do it at home?
Certainly. Chinkiang sells for $3 in Asian food shops and will last for years. And, because it's good for the digestion, blood pressure, colds and flu, so will you.
Where is it?
''It's the quintessential Chinese vinegar'' says Dan Hong, of Mr Wong. ''For the Cantonese it's more about red vinegar, but for the rest of mainland China, it has to be black. I love it with Shanghainese xiao long bau dumplings and Sichuan hot and sour soup''. Chef Jin Kung, of LL Wine and Dine, in Potts Point, sends out crisp pork belly in a syrupy dressing of black vinegar, palm sugar and kaffir lime leaf, topped with mint, coriander, chilli and crushed peanuts. ''It's a lovely ingredient,'' says co-owner Tim Barge. ''Once you've tried it, you can't go back.'' Michael Drescher, of Johnny Wong's Dumpling Bar, in Darlinghurst, agrees. ''We put it out on the tables for people to add to the dumplings, and go through three or four bottles a night,'' he says. ''In the kitchen, it's used for marinades, rice paper rolls and for the Asian vinaigrette in our roast duck and pomelo salad.''
At the Potsticker in Caulfield North, black rice vinegar is the natural accompaniment to the pan-fried dumplings. ''It's a very traditional pairing,'' says owner Eric Wong. Chef Dai Duong, of Geoff Lindsay's Dandelion, teams it with smoked eggplant, spring onions and chilli in a slow-cooked claypot. ''It's almost like an Asian balsamic vinegar,'' he says. ''Normal vinegar just wouldn't do it.'' Leigh Power, head chef of Gingerboy, celebrates its ''mellow, malty, woody, smoky'' qualities with his dish of slow-roasted pork belly with spiced black vinegar caramel and heirloom tomato salad. ''It's like a modern play on sweet-and-sour pork,'' he says. ''You get the sharpness coming from the vinegar, the sweetness from the caramel, and the freshness of the tomatoes and herbs on top.'' Power has even used black rice vinegar, palm sugar and vanilla to macerate strawberries for dessert.
Gingerboy, 27 Crossley Street, city, (03) 96624200
Potsticker, 58 Hawthorn Road, Caulfield North, (03) 95008819
Dandelion, 133 Ormond Road, Elwood, (03) 9531490
LL Wine and Dine, 42 Llankelly Place, Potts Point, (02) 9356 8393
Mr Wong, 3 Bridge Lane, Sydney (02) 9240 3000
Johnny Wong's Dumpling Bar, Level 1, Kinsela's, 383 Bourke Street, Darlinghurst (02) 9331 3100
Steamed wontons with black rice vinegar
150ml black rice vinegar
tsp chilli oil
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
20 square wonton wrappers
1 tbsp julienned spring onion and redchilli
200g minced pork
250g raw prawn meat
3 water chestnuts, finely minced
2 spring onions, finely minced
1 egg, beaten
tsp sesame oil
Salt and pepper
1 tsp sugar
1. Bring the black rice vinegar, chilli oil, soy and sugar to the boil, stirring, and simmer until reduced by half. Set aside to cool.
2. Combine the filling ingredients in a bowl, mixing well with your hands until smooth. Refrigerate for one hour.
3. Spread four wonton wrappers on a clean cloth. Place a teaspoon of filling in the centre of each and brush the edges with a finger dipped in water. Fold over to form a triangle, pressing to seal the edges. Make remaining dumplings, in batches.
4. Cook the wontons in a pot of simmering water or stock for three minutes or until cooked. Drain well. Scatter with julienned spring onion and chilli and serve with the black rice vinegar reduction.
Photos: Edwina Pickles
Styling: Jill Dupleix
Merchandise: Vicino at Fratelli Fresh