Citizens, your beloved leader – the uncompromising yet beloved TFD – is excited to share one of his favorite recipes with all of TFD Nation! I speak of 老醋花生 lǎo cù huāshēng, or peanuts soaked in vinegar. This is a classic Chinese appetizer combining fairly recent new imported food with thousands of years of tradition!
The peanut was believed to be introduced to China by Portuguese traders in the 17th century and another variety was provided by American missionaries in the 19th century. During the 1980s, peanut production began to increase, a major factor being the household-responsibility system, which moved financial control from the government to the farmers. The ability of peanuts to fix nitrogen to the soil helped Chinese farmers avoid famine as well.
By 2012, China was producing 16.7 million tonnes of peanuts annually!
In a vast country like China, the history of peanut’s introduction varies from region to region. The earliest recorded year of growing peanuts is noted as 1368. The next recorded date is in the middle of the 19th century by American missionaries, after which the crop spread to all provinces of the country. Historically, Honan and Chihli provinces have ranked next to Shantung in production.
Peanut is known by different names in China. These include: Changshengguo (meaning “long-life fruit”), Luohuasheng (meaning “flower-born”), Didou (meaning “earth bean”), Xiangdou (meaning “fragrant bean”), Wuhuaguo (meaning “flowerless fruit”), and Qiansuizi (meaning “thousand-year-old offspring”). It is most commonly referred to as “Huashengmi 花生米” or just “huasheng 花生”.
Vinegar in China, on the other hand, has a documented history of thousands of years! The website supremevinegar.com has a great history of the 4 ancient styles of Chinese vinegar:
Like most things in China, vinegar has a long recorded history. The character for vinegar, 醋 or cù (pronounced ‘sooh’), is ubiquitous connoting both the condiment as well as a metaphor for a bitter life condition.
Chinese civilization first arose primarily along the Yellow River in what is now north central China. Like elsewhere, the development of agriculture and fermented beverages went hand in hand and as central governments arose, luxury food products proliferated to meet the demands of royal and aristocratic consumption.
While the origin of vinegar is likely ancient, it is obscure and the subject of legends. A legend in Shanxi province, one of the most famous provinces for producing vinegar, states that a female deity, sometimes named Lin Ziyuan, who was a member of an ancient ethnic group that lived along the Fen River, first invented vinegar and taught it to the rest of humanity.
Regardless, large scale vinegar manufacturing seems to have already begun by 479 B.C. where in the city of Jinyang (modern day Taiyuan) there were reportedly already many vinegar manufacturers in the city according to the Chinese historian Hao Shuhou.
In the Spring and Autumn period from 770 B.C. to 476 B.C., the book The Rites of Zhou (Zhou Li 周礼) was written and described theories behind government, bureaucracy, and organization at all levels of the state. Besides military and political appointees, it gives a vital clue about the importance of vinegar. Vinegar had apparently grown to become more than just a casually made condiment as evidenced by the fact that the royal courts of many Chinese states had a special position for a person whose sole responsibility was the brewing of vinegar for royal consumption. This person was described in the section of the book on the ‘Offices of Heaven” and is known as the ‘Xi Ren‘ (醯人) or ‘Vinegar Maker’ based on the ancient Chinese character for vinegar 醯 (Xi).
VINEGAR BREWING IN ANCIENT CHINA
Similar to in the West, the recognition of the medicinal benefits of vinegar was long known. In 1973, a medical text dating back to the Qin / Han Dynasties in the 3rd century B.C. was discovered by Chinese archaeologists. Known as Recipes for the 52 Ailments it describes treatments for many common conditions from snakebites to ulcers to venereal disease.
Many of the ingredients are herbal ingredients that are still mainstays of Chinese medicine, but many treatments often include vinegar as the main or accompanying ingredient. Later, during the tumultuous, yet romanticized, Three Kingdoms Period (220 – 280 A.D.) following the collapse of the Han Dynasty, the famous doctor Hua Tuoceng used a mixture of garlic and vinegar to treat roundworm. Further Chinese medical texts such as the Recipes Worth a Thousand Gold (Qian Jin Fang 千金方) also extolled the benefits of vinegar for health and treatment.
The twenty-four most common types of vinegar as well as their basic manufacturing processes were later outlined in the ancient Chinese agricultural treatise, Essential Techniques for the Welfare of the People (Qimin Yaoshu; 齐民要术) written in the sixth century A.D. during the Eastern Wei Dynasty,. Similar to the earlier de Res Rustica by the Roman Columella, Qimin Yaoshu describes some agricultural processes and recipes in detail though it is much more comprehensive on the process side. Some vinegars had interesting titles such as “Spiritual Vinegar” or “Vinegar of the Thousand Year Bitterness”.
The book gives instructions on both ingredients as well as the preparation, brewing, and aging processes. Qimin Yaoshu may also be the first book to guess at the biological origin of vinegar production due to its description of the mother of vinegar and admonitions against disturbing the mother since that will disrupt vinegar production. It helped set the stage for large scale vinegar production in the later Tang Dynasty where vinegar became more commonplace and available amongst the general populace.
The vinegars described in Qimin Yaoshu are characteristic of Chinese vinegars to this day. Like malt vinegar in the West or rice vinegar in Japan, Chinese vinegars are typically brewed from grain. Unlike malt or rice vinegar though, many Chinese vinegars contain multiple grains which can include rice, barley, wheat bran, oats, and even vegetables such as soybeans. In order to understand the difference in these cereal based Chinese vinegars, it is important to understand the process by which they are made.
China has four famous vinegars that are renowned throughout the country and important for their respective regional cuisines.
Zhenjiang Vinegar (镇江香醋)
Zhenjiang, or Chinkiang, Black Vinegar is the most well-known and recognized of the four vinegars globally. Many vinegars available in Chinese restaurants and grocery stores in the West are explicitly Zhenjiang Black Vinegar or a similar tasting imitation. Zhenjiang is a city in the eastern province of Jiangsu, nestled next to Shanghai. Zhenjiang Vinegar is reputedly over 1400 years old and has a huge reputation in China and its diaspora. Zhenjiang Vinegar’s primary ingredients are steamed rice along with wheat, barley, and pea. In addition, two types of Qu with different types of mold are used to add flavor and help with sacchrification. Finally, the vinegar’s flavor and color can be adjusted by adding water filtered through rice heated until black in color. The big brands include Hengshun and Gold Plum.
Shanxi Mature Aged Vinegar (山西老陈醋)
Shanxi Mature Aged Vinegar is from the east-central Chinese province of Shanxi. The capital of Shanxi, Taiyuan, is the same city mentioned in part one as having organized vinegar production for almost 2,500 years. Shanxi province was not far from the traditional Chinese capitals of Chang’An and Kaifeng giving it a close proximity to a high demand for quality, expensive vinegar.
Like the other three vinegars besides Zhenjiang Vinegar, Shanxi Vinegar is much less well-known outside of China and is typically not as readily available overseas. However, it is famous within China and is and an indispensable part of the cuisine and history of Shanxi. Legends state that in the Shanxi city of Jinzhong, when fathers looked for a suitable son-in-law, besides having financial means, he must have a vinegar urn of Shanxi Vinegar!
While vinegar has a long history in Shanxi province, the modern variety of the vinegar was developed in 1368 in a brewery called “Mei He Ju” in Qingxu county, Shanxi. The ingredients of Shanxi vinegar can be quite complex and contain sorghum, wheat, barley, bran, and pea. Shanxi vinegar does not use rice. Shanxi vinegar is fermented similar to Zhenjiang vinegar, however, the amount of Qu added can be large and up to almost 1/3 of the total mass. In addition, Shanxi vinegar is aged for at least a year with standard vinegar sold on the shelves being aged for three years. A premium brand aged 5 years is also available.
Sichuan Baoning Vinegar (四川保宁醋)
Sichuan is one of China’s westernmost provinces and contains the ancient and famous city of Chengdu. Famed for its agricultural prowess, Sichuan was the breadbasket that saved China’s forces from starvation and collapse during the fight against Japan before and during World War II. It was also the last stronghold of the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai Shek before he departed and fled to Taiwan after losing the Revolution to Mao Zedong’s Communists.
Chengdu also played an important part in Ancient Chinese history. During the Three Kingdoms Period, one of the Kingdoms was the Kingdom of Shu and was the home of the wise and cunning Liu Bei, one of the protagonists in the classic Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It is also where the first paper money was circulated starting in the capital Chengdu in the 10th century.
Having such a unique history, it also is known for its unique culinary traditions including spicy food (often known in the West as Szechuan cuisine). Thus it is not surprising it also has its own vinegar, Sichuan Baoning Vinegar. Baoning Vinegar was created around the year 1618 as the Ming Dynasty was falling apart and coming to a close. During this time the innovation of Baoning was made by simplifying the base ingredients—wheat bran is the main cereal though others can be present in fractional quantities—but making the Qu much more complex.
The Qu for Baoning Vinegar contains dozens of types of traditional Chinese herbs which impart special flavor and reputed health properties to the finished vinegar. Like the others, it is also aged though usually for only 3 months to 1 year.
Fujian Yongchun Monascus (Red) Vinegar (永春老醋)
The final of the four, and the least likely to be found outside China, Fujian Yongchun Red Vinegar is named both from the town in the southern coastal Fujian province it is made but also due to its unique red color as opposed to the black color of the other three. The red color comes from red mold in the Qu which comes from the Monascus rather than Aspergillus genus of molds. Distinct from the other three, Yongchun Vinegar is a liquid state fermentation process, similar to those in the West, and also uses rice almost exclusively as its starch.
Once converted to alcohol, the mash is poured first into an urn one-half full of one year old vinegar. One year later, one-half of this urn is poured into another urn one-half full of two year old vinegar. This repeats once more so that the vinegar is aged at least three years by the time it is done. This process of using successive containers of aged vinegar to mature new vinegar is nearly identical to the Solera process for aging Sherry Vinegar in Spain.
Citizens, my version of this recipe calls for “old” cucumbers, which according to Chinese traditional medicine are much better for you. I also add a touch of garlic and garnish the dish with minced cilantro and celery leaves. My favorite version of this uses Sichuan Baoning vinegar, but any Chinese vinegar will work and you can even use Balsamic vinegar if you are so inclined.
Battle on – The Generalissimo
The Hirshon Chinese Vinegar Peanuts – 老醋花生
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