Japanese rice vinegar (Recipe: cucumber ribbon salad)
What's now called Boston's Leather District used to be a gritty few blocks of warehouse buildings filled with tanneries and industrial yarn makers, and publishing companies looking for cheap office space.
Thirty years ago I worked for one of those publishers, in the top floor of a converted loft space with huge Palladian windows on all four sides. The view was tailor-made for those of us "creative" types who liked to stare out the window while pretending to "create"; one bank of windows overlooked the train tracks, another the downtown skyline, a third the hypnotic expressway traffic.
On the fourth side an equally tall building blocked our view of Chinatown, just three blocks away.
Proximity to Chinatown was the best part of my job -- that, and the fact that a co-worker knew all the words to the Groucho Marx song, "Lydia the Tattooed Lady". On my walk home, I could shop at the grocery stores and small markets for fresh vegetables and new-to-me pantry items like chili paste with garlic, oyster sauce, and Japanese rice vinegar.
Rice vinegar (also known as rice wine vinegar) is made from distilled fermented white rice, slowly brewed over a period of one month. The flavor is mild, almost drinkable, and less acidic than vinegars made from wine.
When a recipe calls for rice vinegar, generally it means this type of vinegar. There are Korean rice vinegars (much stronger), and Chinese rice vinegars (red and chinkiang), and shao hsing wine, which is not vinegar but is made from rice.
My local supermarket carries Marukan brand, in the aisle with the balsamic and white wine vinegars, and Asian markets also stock the Mitsukan brand; both are good, and will keep for months at room temperature in your pantry. If you can't find rice vinegar, you can substitute cider vinegar, white wine vinegar or brown rice vinegar in eggplant with miso sauce, sesame noodles, flank steak, miso marinated grilled salmon, and sesame seared tuna with coconut rice.
What you should not substitute, unless a recipe calls for it, is seasoned rice vinegar -- which is rice vinegar pumped up with a frightening amount of sugar and salt. Often called sushi vinegar, this is one convenience food I've banished from my pantry.
Cucumber ribbon salad
An easy and refreshing summer salad with a tartness that makes it the perfect accompaniment to rich foods like salmon. If you have a mandoline, now's the time to use it; if not, use a vegetable peeler to make the long, thin ribbons. The salt will draw water out of the cucumber, so make this right before you're ready to eat. Serves 3-4.
1 large, very firm English (seedless) cucumber
1/4 cup Japanese rice vinegar
1 tsp sesame oil
1/2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 pinch red pepper flakes
black sesame seeds, for garnish
Trim the ends off the cucumber. Cut the cucumber in half to make two pieces approximately six inches long. Using a mandoline or a vegetable peeler, slice the cucumber lengthwise into thin ribbons, and place in a mixing bowl.
Combine the vinegar, sesame oil, sugar, salt and red pepper flakes in a small glass measuring cup, and stir well to dissolve the sugar. Taste, and adjust seasoning to your liking. Pour over the cucumber ribbons, and toss well, but very gently, to thoroughly coat the cucumber. Place in a serving bowl, and garnish with black sesame seeds.