Different types of Japanese tsukemono pickles, and how some may not be worth the hassle to make yourself

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Periodically, someone asks about Japanese pickles - those crunchy, salty, sweet-sour, even spicy bits of goodness that accompany a traditional meal, especially breakfast. There are a big variety of Japanese pickles, and sooner or later you might consider making them.

Some time ago I did a week-long series on making instant, or overnight pickles. These pickles can be made very quickly, usually with ingredients that are easy to get a hold of. If you want to try your hand at Japanese style pickles, I recommend starting there. There are also a couple of cookbooks in English dedicated to quick and easy pickles, both of which are quite good: Quick and Easy Tsukemono: Japanese Pickling Recipes by Ikuko Hisamatsu, and Easy Japanese Pickling in Five Minutes to One Day: 101 Full-Color Recipes for Authentic Tsukemono by Seiko Ogawa.

However, the type of pickles that you are likely to be served in a high class traditional inn in Japan, or even the type you can buy in vacuum sealed packs at a supermarket, are a bit more complicated to make, especially outside of Japan. Here are some examples.

Umeboshi or pickled plum

Umeboshi or pickled plums (the reddish lumps pictured above) are arguably the most famous Japanese pickles. The just-ripened fruit of the ume tree, which belongs to the prunus family of fruit trees (which includes the various kinds of Western plums, apricots, peaches and cherries), are pickled in a very time consuming and prolonged process. Here are the basic steps involved:

  • In the spring, ume fruit are carefully washed and de-stemmed, so as not to prick or damage the fruit.
  • The fruit are salted in lots of salt, then weighted down and left for about a month or more in a disinfected container. The weight is changed during this process according to how much liquid is extracted from the plums.
  • In June when red shiso leaves are out, the leaves are salted and then added to the salted ume. The whole thing is disinfected and weighted down again.
  • In July to early August, when the sun is hot, the ume are taken out and dried out in the sun. (This is the hoshi part of umeboshi, which means "dried").
  • Sometimes the umeboshi are further marinated in a flavoring liquid. An important by-product of umeboshi making is the ume vinegar, the salty-sour liquid that is extracted from the ume.

Besides the time it takes to make umeboshi (a surprising number of people in Japan do make it, including my mother - it's sort of like a yearly ritual) you can probably see the difficulties presented in trying to make it outside of Japan. First, where to get a hold of ume? (I've often thought about the possibility of using apricots as a substitute, but apricots ripen at the wrong time.) You'd have to get a hold of red shiso leaves too - the only way to do that that I know if is to grow them yourself from seed. And finally, you probably need to live in an area that gets as hot as much of Japan does in the summer for the umeboshi to dry out properly.

So, to make umeboshi, you'd have to start by planting your own ume trees. It's often said that Tokyo and Atlanta have similar climates. Anyone in Georgia want to give it a go? :)

Other pickles that use ume vinegar

Ume vinegar is a pretty important ingredient in many other pickles. Shibazuke (pictured above) for instance, the bright purple pickles you can buy in vacuum packs, is a mixture of cucumber and eggplant (aubergine), picked in ume vinegar with additional red shiso leaves. I did try to make this once, but found that it really needs the small, firm Japanese or Asian eggplants and cucumbers. Red pickled ginger (benishouga 紅ショウガ)is also picked in ume vinegar - and requires young, tender ginger root. Ume vinegar is sold at supermarkets in Japan, and is becoming more available outside of Japan these days, so if you can get a hold of the base ingredients you can give them a try.

Nukazuke, pickling vegetables in fermented rice bran

Another major ingredient used for making pickles is rice bran or nuka (糠). This of course is what is polished off rice grains to produce white rice. Rice bran pickles or nukazuke (糠漬け) are what you usually get at traditional restaurants, many of whom pride themselves on the quality of their homemade _nukazuke_.

To make rice bran pickles, a special moist rice bran bed called the nukedoko is made. This rice bran bed is the key - it's salted, flavored with various things that hold lots of umami, and slightly fermented. Fresh vegetables are buried for a couple of days in this moist, living bed and allowed to lightly ferment themselves. Taking care of a nukadoko requires time and skill. It's rather similar to taking care of a sourdough starter, except it's much more high maintenance, even more so than a desem starter. You can't easily go away on a long vacation if you want to keep a rice bran bed alive and happy. (And you must never, ever let any animal products near your nukadoko.)

Unlike umeboshi, most rice bran pickles are not long-keeping; like instant pickles, they must be refrigerated and eaten within a few days.

Dried vegetable pickles

Another category of pickle is the dried vegetable pickle. These pickles are probably very ancient in provenance. Freshly farmed whole vegetables are hung out in the open air to dry out, then they are salted and pickled. One of the most well known ones of this type are takuan or takuwan, bright yellow, slightly sweet pickles made from half-dried daikon radish (pictured above). (The yellow is not artificial food dye when made using traditional methods; it comes from turmeric, called ukon in Japanese, or gardenia seeds (kuchinashi no mi), although the latter is not used much in commercially produced takuan these days unless it's of the artisanal variety.) Nozawanazuke or takanazuke, dried greens that are pickled, are also of this type. These kinds of pickles require a lot of time to make, and really only make sense if you have the space to make them in bulk - like if you have a daikon radish farm.

I've thought off and on about making a rice bran bed (you can buy rice bran at Japanese grocery stores). But it won't happen this year, since I have a lot of things to do, will likely be doing a lot of travelling and basically just won't have the time. Maybe another year, when I'll have enough time to grow lots of my own vegetables. In the meantime, I'm going to stick to storebought pickles and made-in-a-few-minutes instant pickles.

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