Yes, vinegar. No, not the vinegar sitting in your pantry with which you make salad dressing. (Although no one can say it isn’t permissible to drink it should you wish so.) I’m talking about the many vinegar drinks which are available in the Korean market.
Drinking vinegar isn’t something new. History buffs are probably aware of posca which was drunk in Ancient Greece and Rome. In Asia it was used not only in cuisine but also for medical purposes for centuries. The medicinal properties of vinegar are pointed out in the Dongeuibogam, citing its use to cure atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, and to relieve fatigue. It is also known to stimulate the appetite (why acidity is a major element in many appetizers), and help digestion. Gets your blood flowing, great for your skin…let’s just say it’s hailed as a cure all and highly recommended for diets.
The most basic vinegar used in cooking in Korea is brewed vinegar (양조식초); it can be grain vinegar, fruit vinegar, or spirit vinegar. Fermented vinegar (발효식초) is being used more an more such as vinegar made from unpolished rice (현미식초), makgeolli (막걸리 식초) and apples (사과식초). These can be found in the supermarket from small serving bottles to jumbo business kitchen size.
For vinegar drinks, the base vinegar is always fermented vinegar, and not brewed. Black vinegar (흑초), a rich and intense vinegar made from unpolished rice is the most common base. Going through several natural fermentation processes, black vinegar is known as “healthy” vinegar, being full of amino-acids and minerals.
Obviously, naturally fermented pure vinegar may be drunk on its own by diluting it with water, but the vinegar drinks currently on the market have made drinking vinegar much easier, both on the palate and in the stomach. Although dilution with water or other drinks is recommended (such as juice or milk), it is also possible for hardcore enthusiasts to drink it straight. The acidity strength of the drinks tends to vary by brand and product. Various flavors are available as well.
There are several major Korean brands with specialized vinegar drinks on the market. The most basic would be simple black vinegar. Persimmon, pomegranate, Korean black raspberry (복분자) are most popular. Other flavors include red ginseng, blackberry, blueberry, cornus fruit, omija (오미자, maximowiczia typica), cactus fruit (백년초, opuntia), mulberry, maesil (매실, prunus mume), with new flavors continuously being developed. A sparkling version has been recently launched, there’s a version with added collagen, and more concoctions and blends are sure to come in the future.
Some companies call their products “vinegar drink”; others, “drink mix concentrate with vinegar” , “vinegar drink concentrate”, or something similar. While many of these drinks suggest the optimal vinegar to water ratio as 1:2, I personally like a stronger vinegar taste so I usually have more vinegar than water, while with the milder flavored ones, I just drink them straight. They make great palate cleansers after a heavy and fatty meal and also good waker-uppers when you’re not in the mood for coffee.
The vinegar may be used in cooking, too, like any other cooking vinegar: making pickles, salad dressing, marinades and sauces, and may be added to other drinks to boost up the flavors. They may be frozen into ice cubes for summer drinks and aperitifs, they provide extra punch to yoghurt, and can be mixed with milk to make smoothies and frozen as popsicles. You can experiment and come up with dozens of interesting recipes.
The drinks come in several sizes from 50 ml to 1.8 liter PET bottles. Unless you’re a large household or plan to diligently drink this every single day for health reasons, I find the smaller bottles a bit more practical. As they are meant to be drunk diluted, they go a long way and you might get tired of a single flavor before the bottle runs out.
If you like the tartness of lemonade, want to drink something healthy without going the “detox juice” route, or are just plain adventurous, give vinegar drinks a try. They probably won’t be as daunting as you had expected them to be. Besides, the colors look so pretty in a drinking glass..
Major brands of vinegar drinks and concentrate