Why Pat Chun Sweetened Vinegar, One of Hong Kong's Most Iconic Sauces, Has Stood the Test of Time
One of the single best things about traveling is discovering the go-to condiment or sauce wherever you land. Everybody's got one. Ketchup might be king stateside, but in England, it's a bottle of malt vinegar that sits on every pub table, waiting to douse a plate of fries. In Hong Kong? You reach for Pat Chun Sweetened Vinegar.
“Growing up, whenever friends or family were expecting a newborn, we’d have bottles of Pat Chun Sweetened Vinegar around, because that’s the key ingredient in pork knuckles and ginger stew—a traditional dish that all new Cantonese mothers eat,” says Daniel Cheung, a former chef and founder of For Food’s Sake public relations agency in Hong Kong.
Of course, Pat Chun's sauces aren’t limited to special occasions. Used on everything from slow-braised ribs to chicken wings, pork chops and even salads, the umami-packed sauces are omnipresent in Hong Kong pantries—not to mention high-end restaurants, such as three-Michelin-starred Bo Innovation: The Hong Kong Story, Cantonese mainstay Tsui Hang Village, and Michelin-starred Jade Dragon in Macau.
Alvin Leung, chef-owner of Bo Innovation, plays with Pat Chun Sweetened Vinegar in haute-cuisine dishes such as “Tomato,” a single Japanese tomato cooked on low heat for an hour in reduced sweet vinega—it was a popular dish on the set menu until recently. Leung now uses the sauce in a dish dubbed “Postnatal Fancy,” where it’s drizzled over crispy pig’s skin and ginger jelly. “I like using Pat Chun in several ways but the most common one is to pair with tomatoes and Chinese preserved olives because of its sweet taste,” Leung says. “I turn it into a sort of Chinese balsamic.”
In the home kitchen, Hong Kong-born journalist and avid home cook Adam White uses the sauce when he's making pig's trotters. “It’s best simmered for an hour or two. While the dish cooks, a warm aroma fills the room—a mix of tangy caramel and ginger. Everyone looks at me weird because it’s traditionally a postpartum dish. But it tastes so good I’d be willing to give birth just to eat it."
Established in 1932 by Ng Wai Sum, Pat Chun, meaning “eight delicious dishes worthy of the emperor,” is an operation that's been passed down through three generations, and is currently run by third-generation owner Trevor Ng. But in some ways, it actually started Ng's great, great grandfather, Ng Tong, who was a chef from Shun Tak, a region that’s famous for its fine Cantonese cuisine.
“He taught my grandfather [Ng Wai Sum] how to cook and make these sauces,” Ng says. “When my granddad moved to Hong Kong, he didn’t have enough money to open his own restaurant. Instead, he decided to start a sauce business using the same recipes and techniques.”
Ng’s grandfather opened the first shop in Mong Kok over 50 years ago. Since then, Ng’s parents—his father, an engineer; his mother, a chemist—took over in the 1990s, about a decade after Ng’s grandfather passed away. Today, the company has four locations scattered across Hong Kong, plus a food truck that runs on solar panels and biodiesel fuel.
Unlike most Hong Kong sauce producers, which eschewed slow fermentation processes in the 1980s and '90s in order to ramp up production, Pat Chun stuck to natural fermentation. But Ng says they’re not preserving tradition for tradition’s sake. “We’ve tried lots of methods, but natural fermentation is the only way to achieve the taste we’re looking for,” he says.
Each batch of vinegar involves a three-step process that’s dictated by the climate. Each batch of sweet vinegar takes anywhere from three months to one year to produce, depending on the weather. The three-step process is dictated by the climate, and severe heat or cold can cause delays. (Acetobacter, vinegar bacteria, does not like the cold, and yeast, alcohol-forming microbes, does not like the warmth, so a fine balance is required.)
At the brewery in Tseung Kwan O, an eastern district of Kowloon, the production process begins with koji (a mold that's the key ingredient in miso and sake and imparts umami flavors). Once broken down into fermentable sugars, the koji is submerged in water and left to ferment into rice wine all winter. Come summer, the team introduces bacteria to last year’s rice wine, which transforms it into vinegar. As a last step, the vinegar will either be left to age in ceramic vessels for a few months or several years, depending on the product.
When it comes to quality control, Ng says he personally taste-tests dozens of sauces a day and, though officially retired, his parents still lend their practiced palates to the operation. The ideal Chinese vinegar, he says, should have layers of flavors.
To explain, he recalls an old Chinese painting called The Vinegar Tasters. Sitting around a vat of vinegar, Buddha, Laozi and Confucius each take a sample. Indicated by their facial expressions, Buddha tastes all the bitter notes, mirroring his philosophy that life is suffering; Confucius, only sour, reflecting his belief in rules and traditions; and Laozi, sweetness, as Taoism aims to find harmony and joy in life.
“The painting is really about Chinese religious philosophies, but it also explains the nuances of vinegar,” Ng says. “A great Chinese vinegar should have a little bit of tartness, bitterness and sweetness. In fact, that's how you can tell the difference between an artificial vinegar and a naturally fermented one.”
The business isn’t limited to vinegar, though. Pat Chun is also known for producing naturally fermented, pickled and cooked foods from traditional recipes. The long list skips from spiced vinegar for xiao long bao to aged vinegar, XO sauce (hand-cooked and bottled), mooncakes and jars of sour plums.
“In Cantonese dining, sauces can really make or break a dish,” says Cheung. “Pat Chun’s extensive range is reflective of Hong Kong's palate and rich eating culture. We crave variety in texture, sweetness, even color—because food is always a celebration.”