Vinegar is a popular condiment used in many countries and Japan is no exception. Vinegar made from rice, which is also popular in other East-Asian and Southeast-Asian countries, is not only a commonly spied condiment in the kitchen but also forms the base seasoning for many popular Japanese dishes. In fact, if you have ever eaten sushi, you will have consumed rice vinegar, when enjoying the light, acidic taste of the rice. You may be forgiven for assuming that it is only the quality of the fish that determines the quality of the sushi, but in fact, high-quality rice vinegar is also a must for producing high-quality sushi.
In this article, we will look at what rice vinegar is, the history of rice vinegar in Japan, the different ways it is produced, and compare it to other similar condiments. We shall also look at how it can be used, both in Japanese and non-Japanese cuisine, look at the potential health benefits of rice vinegar, and round up by looking at some popular rice vinegar brands and products.
What Is Rice Vinegar?
If you compare rice vinegar (from this point on, rice vinegar will refer to Japanese rice vinegar or Komezu) to conventional Western kinds of vinegar, you will find it both mild and mellow in taste, with an acetic acid content of only approximately 5 %, and a color ranging from transparent to pale yellow.
Rice vinegar is closely linked to the sake-making process and is basically produced when an extra step is taken after creating sake, to convert the alcohol content into the more acidic taste of this popular condiment. This process is described in more detail below.
History Of Rice Vinegar In Japan
It is said that vinegar was first produced in Japan around the 4th to 5th century when rice vinegar brewing technology was introduced from China along with sake brewing technology.
It was not until the Edo period (1603-1867) that vinegar became popular as a seasoning. Vinegar production methods spread throughout Japan, and many dishes using vinegar were created as its popularity grew in Japan. Sushi is a typical dish using vinegar that was created around this time. The end of the Edo period saw the birth of "nigirizushi" and "inarizushi" and these quickly became very popular among the general public.
Later, in the Taisho era (1912-1926), synthetic vinegar appeared. This was made by diluting glacial acetic acid made from limestone and adding glutamic acid, succinic acid, artificial sweeteners, and several other food additives. During the food shortage during and after the war(1937-1953), it was forbidden to make vinegar from rice, so for a time this synthetic vinegar dominated the market.
Since 1970, it has been mandatory to label vinegar made with even a small amount of glacial acetic acid as "synthetic vinegar,". Since then, the production of brewed vinegar has outpaced that of synthetic vinegar, and synthetic vinegar is rarely seen in the market today.
Methods of Rice Vinegar Production
So how is rice vinegar made? Well, when rice is steamed and "rice Koji" and water are added, the enzyme converts the starch in the rice into sugars, which are then fermented into alcohol by adding yeast, to make sake.
After filtering the finished sake, it is mixed with “pure rice vinegar”, and heated, and acetic acid bacteria are added. This process, called “acetic acid fermentation”, converts the alcohol component of the sake to acetic acid, which is the main component in rice vinegar.
After fermentation is complete, the vinegar is allowed to mature slowly for about one month in order to improve its flavor. It is then filtered, sterilized, bottled, and shipped whilst ensuring that the flavor and aroma are not compromised.
There are two main types of fermentation methods for rice vinegar, resulting in a different taste as well as varying levels of price on the bottle.
The traditional method is the still fermentation method. This is a technique in which the seed vinegar (Tanesu), Moromi mash, water, and acetic acid bacteria are placed in a tank and it is left to slowly ferment over a long period of time. The care and time required for this technique inevitably lead to higher prices.
The continuous fermentation method, on the other hand, enables mass production and lower prices, albeit at the cost of a less refined taste. With the continuous fermentation method, the raw materials are added sequentially to the initially prepared microbes, allowing continuous microbial fermentation to continue. Such a continuous fermentation method has the advantage that it does not require a recovery system for the microbes and can thus produce the desired substance continuously and in large quantities over a long period of time, from a few days to several weeks or months.
Comparing Rice Vinegar To Other Vinegars
There is one matter that needs to be cleared up before looking at how rice vinegar compares to other condiments. You may see products labeled “rice vinegar” and others referred to as “rice wine vinegar” and wonder what the difference is between the two. The answer is nothing. Both refer to the same thing. As described before, rice vinegar is made by adding an additional process to the production of Nihonshu (which is perhaps misleadingly referred to as “rice wine”), so rice wine vinegar is simply rice vinegar.
Rice Vinegar vs Mirin
Like rice vinegar, Mirin is another commonly used condiment found in most Japanese kitchens. So how are they different? One of the main differences is in their taste. Mirin, which is alcoholic to varying degrees, has a sweeter taste, whereas rice vinegar has a more bitter and acidic taste. This difference is also reflected in the way they are used in cooking. Mirin is used to add a sweet taste to dishes, such as teriyaki sauce, whereas rice vinegar is used more often in pickled dishes and dressings and the like, where a crisper, sour taste is desired.
For more information on the difference between the two, check out this article.
Rice Vinegar vs White Vinegar
Whereas rice vinegar is made from fermented rice, white vinegar is produced by fermenting grain alcohol. Rice vinegar has an average acidity of 4.7%, compared to around 6% for white vinegar. For this reason, white vinegar is the tangier and more acidic of the two, while rice vinegar should be used when you are looking for a slightly softer, sweeter, and milder taste.
How Can I Use Rice Vinegar?
In addition to its use with sushi rice as previously mentioned, rice vinegar can be used in a wide variety of dishes. It is a particularly useful ingredient for marinades as it has the effect of tenderizing food, as well as eliminating strong odors from meat and seafood. It is also often added to pot-based dishes, such as Nimono (fish, meat, and vegetables simmered in a pot) to give it a subtle hint of acidity.
Rice vinegar utilizes the flavor and aroma of the rice itself, and as this aroma is lost, or at least reduced, when heated, one of the best ways to take advantage of its delicate flavor is to use it, as it, is in dishes that do not require heating, such as rice vinegar, vinegared dishes, pickles, and Japanese dressings. Notably, it is an important ingredient of Ponzu sauce, which is a widely used vinegar-based dipping sauce. It is also used in salad dressings that are popular in Western countries, such as ginger or sesame dressing.
Is Rice Vinegar Good For Your Health?
Rice vinegar is thought to offer numerous health benefits, including maintaining normal blood pressure, suppressing elevated blood glucose levels, as well as providing antibacterial effects. By acting as an appetite stimulant, it also helps prevent fatigue during the summer months caused by loss of appetite resulting from the heat.
Another advantage of vinegar in general is that it aids the absorption of calcium, which is a mineral that tends to be absorbed poorly when taken on its own. Calcium is important for the building and maintenance of strong bones and teeth.
What Rice Vinegar Brands Should I Try?
Hopefully, this article has gotten you curious about using rice vinegar in your own cooking. The following are some brands you might like to try.
Imagawa celebrated its 100th year anniversary in July 2023, and this rice vinegar manufacturer dates back to when Sanjiro Imagawa, the founder of the company, decided that vinegar-making was his calling back in 1923. Imagawa prides itself on using the traditional “still fermentation” method of rice vinegar production described earlier in this article, which involves slow fermentation in tanks. Although labor-intensive and time-consuming, they are dedicated to this method as they believe that this produces the best quality rice vinegar.
Uchibori is a company based in Gifu Prefecture that produces a wide range of vinegar-based products including rice vinegar. The Uchibori Brewery believes that the process of vinegar making can be divided into the three distinct stages of alcohol fermentation, acetic fermentation, and maturing, and quality is controlled strictly within each stage to produce the highest quality product possible. You can find a selection of Uchibori products here.
The Tajima Brewery is located in Tajima, a region rich in natural resources, in Yabu City, located at the foot of Mt. Hyonosen, the highest mountain in Hyogo Prefecture. Their standard brewed vinegar is made from sake lees and is slowly aged using the traditional still fermentation method.
Marushige has been making black rice vinegar at their Shigehisa Moriichi Vinegar Brewery for over 200 years. They use an open-air brewing method that has been passed down from generation to generation. After preparing the vinegar, it is fermented for over a year to develop into black vinegar. Each jar is opened periodically to check the status of fermentation and agitated with a stirring rod to introduce air and accelerate fermentation through increased activation of the enzymes in the Koji. This is a highly long, labor-intensive process and reflects the company’s focus on quality at all costs.
Want to learn more about the best Japanese rice vinegars? Check out our comprehensive article about 13 of the best Japanese rice vinegars.
Rice Vinegar – A Mainstay Of Japanese Cuisine
As discussed, rice vinegar has been used in Japan for more than 1,500 years and can be considered to occupy an essential place on the condiment rack of any kitchen. Not only is it an essential ingredient in Sushi, which is possibly the most famous Japanese food of all, but it performs as the basis for a whole host of other foods, including sauces, pickles, pot-based dishes, and marinates. It also provides various health benefits, including blood sugar control, and assisting in the absorption of calcium.
Have you found any interesting ways to use rice vinegar in your cooking? Do you have a favorite brand? Please let us know in the comments.