The history of Japanese vinegar goes back to the 3rd century, when methods for brewing sake were brought over from China to Japan. A by-product of this process, vinegar’s popularity spread across the country, and even samurai warriors are said to have routinely sipped the sour concoction to ward off fatigue and boost energy.
One of Japan’s oldest vinegar producers, Onomichizousu, was founded in 1582 and still produces it today, over 400 years later. Careful cultivation from such artisans has aided in vinegar’s role shaping the country’s cuisine, becoming a versatile item found in every modern Japanese home.
Where there is alcohol, there is vinegar
While the word vinegar derives from the French for “sour wine,” in Japanese vinegar is pronounced su, and its close relationship with alcohol is prevalent in its kanji character 酢, which features the radical for sake (酉).
The Western world may be more familiar with white wine vinegar, malt vinegar or apple cider vinegar, but the key ingredient of Japan’s vinegar is generally found in the country’s most famous crop: rice.
White rice vinegar: The most common type in Japan, it has a delicate flavor with just a hint of sweetness that is distinctively less acidic than many other kinds of vinegar.
Black rice vinegar: Also known as black vinegar, it is made with the rice bran and germ intact resulting in a more nutritionally dense vinegar with a deeper color.
Sushi vinegar: Rice vinegar is seasoned with salt and sugar to give sushi rice its distinguishing stickiness and shine. Although the readymade version is a great modern convenience, it is quite simple to make your own delicious sushi rice at home.
Japanese vinegar in cuisine and beyond
A good Japanese vinegar should be an addition to any aspiring chef’s pantry. With a delicate tartness and packed with umami, they are perfect for pickles, marinades, sauces and salad dressings.
The custom of drinking vinegar is nothing new to the Japanese, but it has become more accessible with the rise of fruit vinegars. The market has exploded with a wide range of delicious flavors, using local and seasonal fruits. Uchibori is revolutionizing fruit vinegar, having launched a range of fruity vinegars that can be used in drinks, cocktails and desserts.
However, there is also increasing attention outside of the kitchen. Health-conscious Japanese are looking towards nontoxic cleaning products, and vinegar is an effective disinfectant that can cut through grease and neutralize odors.
The health benefits of vinegar consumption
Celebrities swear by vinegar for its health benefits and its popularity is showing no signs of slowing down. Many Japanese firmly believe in its ability to support weight loss, reduce high blood pressure and improve liver and digestive health.
Recent research is producing more and more evidence of the sour liquid’s advantages. Major Japanese food producer Mizkan promotes consuming vinegar daily as part of a healthy diet and to ward off lifestyle-related diseases.