Updated August 2010.
For some reason — I'm not questioning — I've received many wonderful cookbooks as gifts this summer.
(PS: I love gifts of cookbooks much more than gifts of food, and just as much as gifts of wooden spoons and cooking utensils from faraway places...in case you were wondering, or making a list and checking it twice....)
Barbara brought an encyclopedic cookbook from Argentina, and Bev returned from Peru with a charming locally-published volume filled with recipes we can't quite understand (though both books have been translated into English, which might be part of the problem). Kate's son Max brought two local cookbooks from his travels in Turkey and Greece; I discovered them in my mailbox one Saturday morning — a delightful surprise.
Ted hit the bookstores in Toronto on a recent business trip, and came home with three treasures, including Flavours of Vancouver, a fundraiser for Save The Children Canada, and the original British edition of Ken Hom's Quick Wok: The Fastest Food in the East.
I always open books in the middle or at the end, never at the beginning. I don't know why. I read newspapers and magazines back-to-front, too. So, I stuck my thumb in the middle, opened Quick Wok, and landed on Cold Aubergine Salad, a recipe that calls for black vinegar.
It was a sign.
I've been using Chinese black vinegar for years, so it's always in my pantry. Black vinegar has a more assertive taste than regular old white vinegar, somewhat like a cross between balsamic and Worcestershire. The aging process gives it a slightly woodsy and smoky flavor. Because it is both sweet and rich, black vinegar is recommended for braised dishes, or as a marinade or dipping sauce.
The best quality black vinegar — also called black rice vinegar, Chinese brown rice vinegar, brown rice vinegar, Chinkiang vinegar, Chekiang vinegar, Chenkong vinegar, and Zhejiang vinegar — comes from the province of Chinkiang in southwestern China. Pulitzer-Prize winning author Pearl Buck lived in Chinkiang as a child, with her missionary parents.
Purchase black vinegar online or in your local Asian market; compared to balsamic, it's a bargain. Be sure to read the ingredient list carefully; I have several black vinegars in my pantry, from China and Taiwan, each a bit different. Look for one that lists rice, or something rice-like, as the first ingredient. Tasting is the only way to find the vinegar that will become your favorite.
Ken Hom's cold aubergine salad
A lovely vegetarian dish from Quick Wok: The Fastest Food in the East, by Ken Hom. Aubergines are eggplants; any kind will taste great, though I prefer the long, skinny Japanese eggplant, which has fewer seeds. Serves 4 as a side dish.
1 lb aubergines (eggplants)
For the sauce:
1-1/2 Tbsp sesame oil
1-2 tsp chili oil
2 Tbsp finely chopped garlic
1-1/2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh ginger
3 Tbsp finely chopped spring onions (scallions)
2 Tbsp light soy sauce
1 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp Chinese black vinegar
Handful of fresh coriander sprigs (optional, for garnish)
Cut the aubergines into 2-inch squares. Do not peel them.
Next, set up a steamer or put a rack into a wok and fill it with 2 inches of water. Bring the water to the boil over a high heat. Put the aubergines onto a heatproof plate and carefully lower it into the steamer or onto the rack. Turn the heat to low and cover the wok tightly. Steam gently for 30-40 minutes or until the aubergines are very soft to the touch. When they are cooked, remove from the wok, transfer to a platter and allow to cool thoroughly. (Can be prepared ahead up to this point; cover and refrigerate the aubergines for up to 24 hours. Bring back to room temperature before completing the recipe.)
Now, make the sauce. Wipe the wok clean and reheat it. When it is hot, add the sesame and chili oils. When they are very hot and slightly smoking, add the garlic and stir-fry for 40 seconds.
Add the rest of the ingredients, mix thoroughly, and stir-fry for 1 minute. Remove the wok from the heat and allow the sauce to cool.
When you are ready to serve, pour the sauce evenly over the aubergines and toss well. Garnish with the coriander if using and serve at once at room temperature.
Other recipes that use black vinegar:
Kung pao chicken, from Rasa Malaysia
Chinese hot and sour soup, from Wandering Chopsticks
Eggplant, cumin and black bean salad, from Appetite for China
Sichuan stir fried potatoes with vinegar, from Soupbelly
Mandu -- Korean-style potstickers with ssamjang/kochujang sauce, from Herbivoracious
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