The word su in Japanese means vinegar, but it generally refers to komezu, or rice vinegar, which, as a result of the importance of rice in Japanese cuisine has always been the main kind of vinegar used and is one of the key seasonings in Japanese cuisine. Compared with regular spirit vinegar or malt vinegar, rice vinegar is milder and sweeter, with less of the sharp acidity that is normally associated with vinegar. Instead, its flavour is deeper and more rounded, yet at the same time more subtle by comparison. It is therefore not possible to substitute rice vinegars for others when making Japanese dishes and especially when making sushi rice.
Rice vinegar is an ingredient with a long history in Japanese cuisine, which became more and more important throughout the ages until nowadays it is and indispensable part of a wide variety of dishes. It is thought that vinegar, in common with sake, was first made soon after rice was introduced to Japan from China in around AD 500. During the Nara period (710-784) it is known that vinegar production became more widespread and vinegar was collected by the Imperial Court as a form of taxation, while during the Heian period (794-1185), rice vinegar was known, along with salt, sake and hishio (a fermented condiment rather a cross between soy sauce and miso), as one of the four essential seasoning. It was not until the Azuchi Momoyama period (1573-1600) that sea food was sliced and eaten raw as it is today. Until then vinegar was always used as a preservative.
Japanese cuisine developed a great deal during the Edo period (1603-1867) and it was during this time that many of the quintessential dishes enjoyed today came to prominence, including sushi. Fish was originally preserved by covering it in rice, which would then ferment, but by this time vinegar was being added to the rice to create what is perhaps the best loved Japanese dish in the world.
Nowadays, pure rice vinegar is known as komezu and is labeled as such, but many types of vinegar contain other grains as well and these are known as su or kokumotsusu. The regulations state that if less than 40g of rice is used in the production of one litre of vinegar, then the product must be labeled as kokumotsusu. A cheaper mixture of brewed and synthetic vinegar, known as goseisu, is also available, but for the best results pure rice komezu vinegar is recommended.
In addition to regular rice vinegar a variant made using unpolished brown rice is available, known as genmaisu. This is less common than regular rice vinegar and is prized for its more complex flavour. A very special variety of vinegar is komekurozu (black rice vinegar), which is made using only steamed rice, kojikin mould and water, with no bacteria added to assist the process. Instead, the ingredients are placed in earthenware pots and buried in the ground to ferment and then age. The resulting vinegar is dark in colour, and has a mild yet full-bodied taste.
The most celebrated use of vinegar in Japanese cuisine is in the making of sushi, where steamed rice is coated with rice vinegar that has been sweetened with sugar and cooled slightly before toppings or fillings, often of raw fish and sea food, are placed on top. This is an extremely successful combination on a number of levels. Firstly, because the vinegar is itself made from rice, it compliments the taste of the rice perfectly, particularly when sweetened. In turn, this sushi rice forms a perfect partner for a number of ingredients, in particular; raw fish and other seafood but also cucumber, omelette and kanpyo gourd shavings to name but a few. The antibacterial qualities of the vinegar also help counteract any bacteria that may be present on the raw fish.
The other main use for vinegar is in the creation of sunomono, or salad dressed in vinegar, which form a major sub-section of Japanese cuisine and are a common feature on menus. These often include vegetables such as thinly sliced cucumber and wakame seaweed or seafood such as crab and shrimp and are served as an appetizer at the beginning of a meal or as a side dish. Rather than just plain vinegar, sunomono are often dressed in vinegar mixed with soy sauce, which is known as sanbaizu. Rice vinegar also has a multitude of uses at all stages of the cooking process from preventing discolouration through to removing slimy substances from food and softening fish bones.
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