Some like it sour

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on January 16, 2020

Magic potion: Apple cider vinegar is one of the wonder foods of the moment   -  ISTOCK.COM

Despite its impressive past, vinegar occupies a spot between a kitchen staple and fancy condiment

I still haven’t invested in a tub of coconut butter. Or tried my hand at avocado popsicles. For, try as I might, I’m not very good with health-food trends.

Perhaps that’s why I was bewildered by the apple cider vinegar invasion a couple of years ago. This was the time when every upmarket grocery store — both in the real and virtual world — stuffed its shelves with bottles, jars and barrels of orange-brown liquid. I adore sour flavours. I love the sharp, clean taste of vinegar and its unerring ability to liven up the heaviest, stodgiest dish. I also admire its ability to vanquish irritants — from ketchup stains and garden weeds to hair lice (I kid you not).

Although that sudden deluge of apple cider vinegar felt like too much of a good thing, I made the most of all those two-for-one offers. Apple cider vinegar is one of the wonder foods of the moment. If its votaries are to be believed, it performs more miracles than a Biblical prophet and possesses the ability to blast colds, banish acne, reduce risk of cancer and — brace yourself for the big but controversial one — melt away body fat.

No wonder that the I-will-suffer-for-my-hourglass-figure crowd has been diligently measuring out tablespoons of the stuff, stirring it into water and gulping it down. The fad has even set the stage for a new generation of drinking vinegars — some mixed with horseradish, others with turmeric and ginger, and still others with salted honey or strawberry. The very thought makes my mouth pucker, not just with distaste but with indignation.

After all, vinegar is much more than a slimming potion. This fermented food has stood the test of 10,000 years. Historians believe that vegetables such as cucumber were already being pickled in vinegar in ancient Mesopotamia. In the China of the Zhou Dynasty, wealthy households employed “vinegar makers”. In ancient Greece, the souring agent was added to a honey-flavoured drink called oxycrat. And in ancient Rome, it went into innumerable dishes and was the key ingredient of a drink called posca — considered essential for the well-being of the army.

Vinegar was also used to clean wounds and combat illnesses. According to a myth, it could even grant protection from the plague. Four thieves, or so the story goes, were doing brisk business in plague-struck Marseilles in the 17th century. The thieves broke into the houses of plague victims but seemed immune to the Black Death. When they were eventually caught, the judge offered them leniency if they revealed their secret. This turned out to be a salve of vinegar infused with certain herbs, spices and garlic — a concoction today referred to as four thieves vinegar.

Despite this impressive past, however, vinegar is often considered a nondescript ingredient, somewhere between a kitchen staple and fancy condiment. It usually lurks unnoticed at the back of the kitchen cupboard till you need to pep up a salad of bell peppers, lettuce and tomato. Or to brighten up the flavours in a hearty stew. Or add some sparkle to well-meaning but bland noodles.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Every Parsi kitchen has its stash of complex, dark sarko — a traditional sugarcane vinegar that is essential for saas ni machhi, prawn patiyo and salli margi. And every Parsi cook has strong opinions about the relative merits of EF Kolah and EH Kolah — even though both families have been making vinegar in wooden barrels in the Gujarat town of Navsari, just as they have done since 1885.

Similarly, Filipino cuisine is vinegar-centric. During a trip to the Philippines, I splashed vinegar on my garlicky rice and already vinegary chicken adobo at breakfast; I shopped for different varieties of vinegar through the day; and at dinner made a beeline for sour squid and pork dishes that I then splashed with the vinegars that I hadn’t sampled in the morning. And I felt enormously disappointed that I never got to taste the local, vinegary adobo ice cream.

In most cuisines, however, vinegar is a backbencher. So it was a revelation when I cleared out my kitchen cupboard a few days ago and found:

— One overpriced, unopened bottle of balsamic vinegar for the elegant salads that I somehow never make.

— Miniature bottles from the Philippines, including a vinegar made from pineapple, another spiced with fiery chillies, and a third made with strawberries.

— A never-to-be-revealed number of bottles of cut-price apple cider vinegar.

— A bottle of cheap white liquid that looked more like it belongs to a chemistry lab than a kitchen.

— A slender bottle of Japanese rice vinegar that goes into sushi, sriracha chicken and Japanese mother’s chicken.

— Four hoarded packets of sarko, essential for salli margi and for my favourite Bohra pickle.

Clearly, it’s time to give vinegar its due, at least at my dinner table.


Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author

Filipino chicken adobo



  • One chicken with skin, cut in pieces
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • 1/2 cup rice or apple cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • Lots of freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 3 scallions, green parts only, thinly sliced


  • Toss the chicken with the soy sauce and refrigerate for one hour or even up to eight hours.
  • Remove the chicken from the soy sauce, and place it in a skillet over medium-high heat and cook until the skin is crisp and dark golden, 8-10 minutes. Meanwhile, mix the coconut milk, vinegar, sugar and pepper into the soy sauce.
  • Pour the soy sauce-coconut milk mixture into the pan; add the garlic, and bring to a gentle boil. Simmer, uncovered, for about 35 minutes, or until cooked. Then raise heat to medium and thicken the sauce. Top with chopped scallion. Serve with white rice.

Published on January 14, 2020

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor