If you’ve ever wondered what a vinegar factory smells like, it smells like taking a sip of vinegar, washing your body with vinegar, and then preceding to dunk your head in a bucket of vinegar. At least, that’s what the Zhejiang Flavor and Food Co. smelled like.
It was a rainy drive along the factory-lined highway on the outskirts of Hangzhou, the smokestack plumes just barely distinguishable from the grey mix of rain clouds and air pollution that covered the sky. I had been hoping to go to a pickled vegetable factory, but we were heading to the vinegar and soy sauce factory instead, because this was a factory where the professor I’m studying with had guanxi. Translated directly as “relationship” or “connection,” this two-syllable word is extremely important in contemporary China. Without guanxi with certain people or organizations, you may have a hard time getting ahead in your career field, or even your personal life. Thus, we were on the road to the vinegar and soy sauce factory.
Our tour started with the soy sauce section of the factory. We were prohibited from taking pictures, ostensibly because they want to keep their production process as private as possible. While soy sauce has only four main ingredients (soy beans, wheat flour, salt, and water), the production process is somewhat complex, particularly the step where you have to let the soy sauce ferment from 4 to 6 months, stirring it once a day. While our tour spanned multiple floors and boiling, washing, mixing, and pressing chambers, not to mention an array of rather complex diagrams, soy sauce can actually be made at home. While it’s a project only for the patient, spanning around 6 months and requiring constant attention, it seems gratifying enough that I’d like to try my hand at making a batch. I thought that this was a good, simple recipe, but of course there are others.
After walking through each step of the soy sauce production process, we turned over to the (very pungent) vinegar side. While the vinegar production appeared to be in a factory building, the methods they used to make it were actually identical to the traditional Chinese way. Instead of being lined with the shiny steel machinery of the rest of the factory, the vinegar factory was lined with rows and rows of ceramic crocks with bamboo lids.
The process is rather simple. Rice is cooked, mashed, and ground, and added to water in a ceramic crock. The middle is hollowed out so that there is a pool of liquid in the center. Then, it’s just left to sit for a year, first turning to alcohol, and then to vinegar. The array of bacteria present in the atmosphere will naturally ferment the mixture. However, this takes quite a long time—their lower-grade vinegar was fermented for a year, and the higher-grade vinegar fermented for around five years. While we were required to wear hair nets, I was particularly surprised when the man giving us the tour opened up a crock and let me dip my bare hands into the murky surface and try some of the vinegar! I think China’s food safety standards are a bit different, to say the least.
Continuing the tour, we were brought to a part of the factory where a lower-grade vinegar was made using mechanized processes, which only required a one month fermentation period. This vinegar was fermented with the skin of the wheat and rice plants, as to give it flavor and color.
Going to the factory had the interesting effect of strengthening my trust in processed food, particularly Chinese processed food. While I was expecting to discover that they were adding a cocktail of artificial flavorings and preservatives, their ingredients were surprisingly simple—they even were going through the effort of using non-GMO soybeans. I particularly was heartened by the ceramic crocks of vinegar fermenting in the warehouse building, the mix of traditional and modern. Turns out that sometimes the traditional way is the tastiest.