Sunday, July 12, 2009

Pickle Passport: Japanese Tsukemono

Every Sunday night, when Ned and I keep Monday morning at bay with a True Blood drinking game (i.e., when Vampire Bill yells, "SOOKIE!" we sip Hendrick’s martinis), I have to stop myself from yelling: SOOKIEMONO!

What I mean to say is I have tsukemono on my mind, or literally, pickled things, in Japanese.

I wouldn’t be so bold as to tackle the behemoth subject of tsukemono in one blog entry, but I have to at least introduce you to this magical, technicolor world we experienced in Japan.

There are nearly 4,000 varieties of tsukemono and a reported 100 different techniques to make them. Their recorded history dates as far back as 1,500 years ago in the Japanese Alps; all this to say, we have a lot to cover today. Arigatou gozaimasu in advance for reading.

During our three weeks in Japan last summer, we ate tsukemono with every meal, including a traditional breakfast of broiled mackerel, rice with raw egg, and miso soup. In keeping with the other mind-blowing foods we ate (low to high, from street yakitori to ryokan kaiseki), tsukemono were a revelation as tantalizing on the plate as they were on the palate.

The New York Food Museum—host of the annual International Pickle Day and home to a dedicated “pickle wing—“ offers this expert synopsis of fascinating methods (including the use of rice mold and miso paste):

Shiozuke, or salt pickles, vegetables are salted in an earthenware jar and pressed with a heavy stone for several hours to several days. Today's modern Japanese kitchens use a tsukemonoki or "pickle press."

One-night salt pickles are called ichiyazuke. A long-term variety are umeboshi, tart, salty pickled plums or apricots. They were originally a disinfectant, then a medicine before becoming a favorite pickle.

Suzuke are pickles cured in vinegar, which has a low acidity; these pickles cannot be kept for long.

In nukazuke pickling, vegetables are covered with nuka, or rice bran, salt and dried chilies, for about three months. In many households, salt bran is kept in a cask or jar on hand. The most popular kind of nukazuke is takuan zuke, pickled daikon radish. Colored yellow with turmeric, the best season for natazuke is winter when the water freezes on the surface of the keg for keeping natazuke. Nukazuke have a pungent aroma, a tangy flavor, and gather vitamins and minerals from the rice bran.

Japanese radish preserved in rice bran (crisp, tart, deep yellow in color). The most popular way to prepare daikon radish, legend has it the pickle was named for the resemblance of the heavy stone used in pressing, to the gravestone of pickle inventor and vegetarian Zen Priest Takuan. But it is also said that the name came from "takuwae-zuke" = to preserve.

For kasuzoke, a white liquor called sakekasu (made from the rice left from making sake) is combined with sugar and salt to make a pickling medium.

The oldest known variety, misozuke, is made by embedding vegetables such as garlic, pumpkin, in miso paste. Miso pickles take a long time, sometimes years, to mature. To form the pickling base, miso is mixed with sake.

(From pickle girl: these are ubiquitous in the Kyoto markets, where barrels are filled to the brim with layers of eggplants and miso, squash and miso, and even meats in miso.)

Koji, rice mold, is used as the pickling base (koji is also used in the manufacture of sake, soy sauce, miso and mirin). Bettarazuke, one kind of kojizuke, is daikon pickled in koji. This winter pickle is known for its sweet flavor and alcoholic aroma.

Vegetables can be pickled in shoyu, soy sauce, and mirin, a sweet liquid flavoring. Fukujinzuke is one of the most popular kinds of soy sauce pickles, and is the standard accompaniment to curry and rice. To make fukujinzuke, a mixture of seven thinly sliced vegetables (which could include white radish, eggplant, lotus root, ginger, shiso buds, turnip, shiitake, udo, sword beans, shirouri) is salted and pickled in soy sauce and mirin.

The famous pickle of Kyoto is made from turnip, salt-pickled for up to a month with konbu (a seaweed), mirin or sugar, and chili peppers.

Iburi Gakko
Around October in Akita, people dry radishes over the daily cooking hearth. The dried and smoked radishes were then pickled with salt and rice bran for two to three months, making "iburi gakko," or "smoked pickles."

Further reading
Tsukemono: Pickled Japanese Vegetables

Quick & Easy Tsukemono: Japanese Pickling Recipes

Stay tuned for Tsukemono Part II: the recipes!