Written and illustrated by Misa Ono
Sushi, vinegary vegetables, pickled shallot… There is no Japanese cuisine without vinegar. Nowadays, the vinegar is used for Europeanized dishes like salad dressing and mayonnaise. The vinegar has a long history as it came to Japan from China in 400, but it started to be widely used by people in Edo period (from 1603). Many people over the world and period, love vinegar because it is great in taste and the health including fatigue recovery, obesity prevention and anti aging. Also vinegar brings out the food’s saltiness so you tend to use less salt.
There are many kinds of vinegar but in the rice country of Japan, the most popular vinegar is rice vinegar, of course. Wine vinegar is made of grape while rice vinegar is made of rice. The vinegar made with rice, koji and water has not only sourness but umami, which makes dishes more delicious and you feel that you are great at cooking. For men who don’t like the sour taste, let them try high-quality vinegar. They may change their mind on it.
There is a Japanese drink (also seasoning) that is made of only rice, koji and water. What do you think it is? Yes, it’s Japanese sake. Sake and vinegar are actually twin sisters. Once the acetic acid bacteria is added, one transforms to vinegar.
To make vinegar, ferment the koji mold to make rice koji. Add hot water to let the koji change the glucose of rice to sugar (same as amazake). Then add the yeast to dissolve the sugar into alcohol (same as sake). Now the acetic acid bacteria is added. The bacteria oxidants ethanol in the alcohol and makes the acetic acid (vinegar’s main ingredient) which produces the sourness of the vinegar. Let it age, then refine it and heat it to stop the fermentation. Now it is ready to be pack and send into the market.
Amazake, Japanese sake and vinegar all starts with rice and water. Just what bacteria is added decides what it becomes at the end. Koji mold, yeast, lactobacillus, acetic acid bacteria…. Very interesting. We only prepare the environment for these bacteria to function properly. The bacteria keeps working on whatever it becomes. Thanks to the bacteria, we can have delicious sake and vinegar!