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


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.

Filed under:  japanese vegetables vegan tsukemono pickles

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Ohhhhh, so the little golden discs I see so often in Japanese dramas are takuwan! I've always wondered that. XD

This was very informative post, Maki! I've always been mildly curious about Japanese pickles, although I've never thought about making them myself.

In Toronto, the sushi made with what you call takuwan is known as oshinko. Is this a case of something having more than one name, or is takuwan-sushi called oshinko? Thanks!

oshinko (お新香) is just another name for pickles, though it usually refers to rice bran pickles.

I'm in Atlanta, Maki, and I've thought about planting an ume tree before. Just have to find one - I wonder if there are any in the states that are grafted to dwarf rootstock so I could put it in a container. beginning to plot madly

I'm also looking for some of those prepared rice bran beds; I'm pretty sure Uwajimaya has them, but I haven't been back to the West coast of the US in years. I signed up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) vegetable delivery this year and I think this is going to have to be the Summer of the Pickle!

[quote=Kate]I'm in Atlanta, Maki, and I've thought about planting an ume tree before. Just have to find one - I wonder if there are any in the states that are grafted to dwarf rootstock so I could put it in a container. *beginning to plot madly*

I'm also looking for some of those prepared rice bran beds; I'm pretty sure Uwajimaya has them, but I haven't been back to the West coast of the US in years. I signed up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) vegetable delivery this year and I think this is going to have to be the Summer of the Pickle![/quote]

I almost bought an ume tree last fall. At the time, I wasn't sure exactly what type (genus?) that produced the ume plum. I believe that there are several nurseries in SC and south GA that have them. Have you planted a tree yet?

Rick, Roswell GA

Whoops, open italic tag. Sorry about the formatting!

I was debating over buying the unripened apricots at the supermarket for making umeboshi...
By the way, I think it's good that some companies are making takuwan with turmeric- but all the brands I've seen in New York City are made with yellow food coloring which is a total turn off. Turmeric sounds lovely.

Hmm... so, theoretically I could do the Shibazuke then, as I have plenty of ume vinegar (I have an ume addiction), lots of access to japanese pickling cucumber and aubergine, and red shiso growing in my garden. Hmm... any ideas toward proportions?

Actually- any reccomendations for books that might go into making these as well as the dried-veggie pickles? I do a lot of pickling and fermenting as it is, and have access to large amounts of daikon at certain times of the year...

Yes- I'm rather old-fashioned in my food making.

marty, a simple shibazuke recipe: salt down cucumbers and eggplants for a day or so (in equal amounts), a small piece of young sprouting ginger, and a few sliced myouga (a kind of very mildly oniony bulb....if you can't find it just leave it out, or try young onions), plus red shiso leaves that have been blanched and then salted. The vegetables are de-salted in cold water, squeezed out well, covered with ume vinegar then left under a weight for at least an hour. It's then stored in a dark, cool place, preferably the refrigerator.

I don't think there are any books in English (other than the two ones I mentioned) dedicated to pickle making. (though any book that pretends to be a comprehensive guide to Japanese cooking should have a section on making nukazuke at least!) There are lots in Japanese, and a lot of Japanese recipes on the net if you read Japanese. If you want to get into Japanese pickle making, I'd recommend starting with nukazuke...it's considered to be a very high accomplishment indeed to make top notch nukazuke. And babying a nukadoko is plenty of work! :)

Most takuan I find has food coloring and nutrasweet or saccharine. I hate the flavor of artificial sweeteners, so I've been looking for some pickles without it. I finally found that Eden Foods sells a takuan that is traditionally made with no coloring or sweeteners. It is YUMMY! In fact, Eden has a nice line of Japanese ingredients, including ume vinegar and shiso powder (although not the whole leaves).

Also, I've noticed that some shibazuke is colored with cochineal, which I don't believe is kosher (and certainly not vegetarian).

Uwajimaya has fresh ume right now. When I saw them, I briefly and wildly thought of making my own umeboshi, but then sense kicked in and I realized that with me moving this summer, it probably was not a good idea. (I might have to try my hand at nukazuke however.)

I have that book! (Easy Japanese Pickling in Five Minutes to One Day: 101 Full-Color Recipes for Authentic Tsukemono by Seiko Ogawa) It's great: so much variety and full of helpful information. The apricot radish pickles are great! And the lotus root in sweet vinegar, and the julienned vinegar potato, and orange mint carrot ribbons...

I finally found the rice bran, but as you said, "Taking care of a nukadoko requires time and skill". I did not buy it, but if they still have it next time perhaps it's worth a try.

Thanks for this post - it's so informative. I've been a life-long fan of Japanese food but I've just taken my first steps into cooking it. I made Agedashi Tofu the other night which was amazing, so I'm really looking forward to investigating the cuisine further. I've also linked you on my blog, I hope you don't mind.

And it is a relief to see that your own conclusions are similar to mine. I'm especially grateful as I was feeling guilty about ruling out making shibazuke and wondered if I was just being lazy.

I also bought rice bran once with the fantasy that I could replicate obaasan's nuka pot, but circumstances meant I couldn't take care of it properly and it went moldy.

I did use the rest of the nuka though - putting a spoon or two in a sock or little sack and using it like soap in the shower releases a milky liquid which makes your skin very noticeably softer - no wonder it was so popular amongst geisha! (Does go moldy after a couple of days so best to empty out and rinse the sock regularly)

The book by Ms Hisamatsu has been very useful, I'm really pleased you recommended it. Now if only I could find a bulk source for shiso seeds in London....

I watched a program called "Soko ga Shiritai" in Hawaii. It showed a rare tsukemono picked as a crispy tuber or root in a snowy ground that the Japanese said that was hard to get and expensive, but was very flavorful (like hasu and others I forgot their names) and crunchy. When it is prepared, it is scarlet red (chiso dye?) and shaped like araimo? It starts with "chogorashi?" something like that. Could you give me more information on it? Thanks.

oh man, I've been trying to look for this one type of pickle for a long long time and haven't been able to find it, any help would be appreciated.

they're red, very small about the diameter of a dime or nickel, crunchy, sweet and sour, seed is very much like the plum seed except smaller.

Hello Maki, i visit justhungry since around a year, thank you very much for all your work!! i write you to ask you if have you ever have listened of nukazuke made in a wheat bran doko. In a book called wild fermentations i've read that such thing is possible, but I can't find any other info about it. I can't find rice bran where i live, but wheat bran is avaiable. I don't pretend that the tsukemono tastes exactly like the kome-nuka ones, but by now i think wheat bran is maybe an acceptable substitute (maybe adding to it some sesame seeds or oil to elevate the lipid percentage of the nuka-doko), what do you think? Best regards.

From my rather fuzzy memories of grandma's "pickling mush", I *think* she used oatmeal (the long cooking kind), leftover rice, salt, and raisins(!). Not sure what liquid she added to make it mushy. She kept it on the back porch in a ceramic jar and would periodically add more rice and oatmeal. Good heavens, it smelled! Once in a while she'd toss the mush and start a new batch. Haven't worked up the nerve to try it myself.

Hi ~
I really enjoy strolling through your website; it brings back many childhood memories with my Japanese mother. Of special interest is takuan or takuwan, one of my favorites.

My question to you (or anyone out there) is... Does this yellow pickled radish ever go by the term "koko"? (sp?)

I have no idea how it's spelled, but phonetically, that's what my mother always called it. Could it be a more casual Japanese name for takuwan or perhaps it was an actual brand name?

Any thoughts? Thanks!

A bit of googling in Japanese turned up the use of the term Koko (ココ)for takuan, but it only seems to be in use in the Niigata area. Maybe your mother is from that area - maybe Joetsu-shi or the environs? There are other sort of slang or nicknames for pickles that I know, such as oshinko or oshinkou and okouko. I read one theory that koko is derived from okouko.

I've also loved tsukemono, when my grandma knew I was coming by, she'd save me all her tsukemon pickles and I'd have a whole meal (with hot rice) out of it. But what about the tsukemono made with sake? As a kid, mom would get a small can of a gourd pickled in sake (or something like that) that was yummy and we'd eat it on the train going from Illinois to California to visit the grandparents. I've also had pickles in miso--not sure if they were pickled in miso or if they were pickled elsewise and then stuck in miso after being pickled.

Maki is sensitive to the difficulties of procuring Japanese ingredients overseas. She even mentions her own temptation to use peaches in place of plums.

Has anybody ever tried or heard of using other fruits instead of ume? Of course, pickled cherries exist - or at least I THINK those tiny hard things are cherries. Maybe they are just really small ume, I don't know for sure.

Anyway, has anybody successfully tried the same thing with different fruit?

Hi all!
I really love japanese pickles! I've made some salt pickles, rice vinegar pickles and even nukazuke! I, like most people who make it ,have kept it going for a few months, then neglected it. You can sprinkle some salt over the top if you don't want to hire a babysitter for your nuka but I left it much longer than babysitters would watch it....call Child Services!.
I heard that some sort of pickling is done from sake lees (leftovers from sake making). I don't think I know much about it though.
I bought a bag of stuff that was similar to it from a Japanese grocery store. The little english lanes says: Pickling Base. "Kose Foods" Sa Go Hachi. Ing: Rice, Malted Rice, Salt. It looks like you add water to hydrate the stuff and then put your veggies in it....Gotta try it soon.
A great book about making and cultivating your own Nuka is "Wild Fermentation" by Sandor Katz. A great book on all kinds of fermentation! I even made some ginger beer with my own "ginger bug"!
What a great site!

I went to a restaurant a while back that served pickled garlic cloves that were light pinkish-purple and absolutely delicious. I know that one of the ingredients is shiso, but try as I might I can not find a recipe to make anything like these at home. Can anyone help?

A friend recommended me to this resource.
Thank you for the resources.

Takuan is traditionally colored with kuchinashi no mi, the seed pod of a kind of hardy gardenia, not with ukon. Ukon is often used in old-fashioned takuan produced without artificial coloring, but it's not the traditional 'chanto' way of making it.