The “pickled things”
Pickles with a bowl of rice and miso soup is the “quintessential Japanese meal,” Nancy Singleton Hachisu notes in her book.
Like their counterparts everywhere in the world, Japanese farmers, gardeners, and cooks see an overly abundant yield as an opportunity to preserve the harvest so they might enjoy it when the fields aren’t producing. Pickles made from radishes, ume plums, okra, young ginger, cucumbers, turnip leaves, carrots, and many other items add color and salty, sweet, tart, or piquant flavor to daily meals and snacks. Besides being tasty, tsukemono (literally, “pickled things”) are used to clear the palate before introducing a new course.
Japanese pickles and ferments can be prepared in salt, vinegar, miso, soy sauce, sugar, hot mustard, rice bran, or sake lees. A Japanese pickle press (tsukemonoki) is traditionally wood, though as in other cultures, various containers are used. Plastic presses that fit in the refrigerator are common in Japan and available locally.
Quick pickles, as you might expect, are easy to prepare. Lacto-fermented types are more challenging but worth the effort for their additional flavor and nutritional value. If you’d like to taste some before attempting to make your own batch, pay a visit to Cultured Pickle Shop in West Berkeley.
“Our Japanese pickles fly off the shelves,” says Kevin Farley, who co-owns the shop with his wife, Alex Hozven. “We’re really seeing growth in demand as restaurants incorporate Japanese products and interest in the cuisine increases.” Hint: Savvy customers hoping to snap up some of Cultured’s Japanese pickles keep tabs on the shop’s production schedule via social media.
Cultured offers three excellent small-batch Japanese pickles: nuka-tsuke (pickled in rice bran), kasu-zuke (in sake sediment), and miso-zuke (in miso). Starting with locally grown organic produce from farms like Riverdog, Avalos Organic, and La Tercera, Farley and Hozven ferment the vegetables in ceramic crocks using traditional processes. They always seem to be trying new and interesting combinations, and depending on what’s in season, might put up scarlet queen turnip, red daikon, carrots, or sunchokes as nuka-tsuke. Rice-bran pickling, explains Farley, “dates back to the old Edo period in Japan.” The bran, which is the most nutrient dense part of the rice, is mixed with water, salt, and konbu to create a mash or bed (nukadoko). Cultured uses organic rice bran from Polit Farms in the upper Sacramento Valley.
The nukadoko needs to be stirred daily, with vegetable scraps added and then picked out the following day. Over several weeks, the bed becomes so microbially rich that a well-tended nuka pot will pickle vegetables pressed into the mash within half a day or overnight. The bran wicks the moisture from the vegetables, making for a drier pickle.
“A nuka pot can last a family for years,” says Farley. “The character of the pickled vegetables will change as the bed ages. The pickles taste mildly sour and more subtly flavored than vinegared or salted pickles.” Vegetables pickled in nukadoko are rich in both Lactobacilli bacteria and vitamin B from the bran.
Kasu-tsuke are pickles made from kazu, the sake-infused rice sediments (lees) left over from the fermentation process. Cultured gets their lees from the Takara Sake brewery just up the street. (Home picklers can find the lees at Berkeley’s Tokyo Fish Market and other Asian markets.) To make the pickle, Farley and Hozven mix the kasu with sea salt and sugar and then bury things—like unpeeled burdock root, spring garlic, or even tuna—in the blend for six months to a year. They’ve also done an intriguing jalapeño pepper mix, which won a Good Food Award. When finished, the rich, aromatic paste smells of sake, sweetness, and the earthy vegetable it encases. Rinse off the paste and slice or chop the pickle to enjoy alongside your meal or as a snack.
Japanese pickles are about working with what you have. Different regions and prefectures in Japan are famous for their particular pickles. The specialness comes both from what’s being pickled and the medium. Experiment! —KS
VEGETABLES IN PICKELED RICE BRAN (Nukazuke)
Adapted from Japanese Farm Food
Years ago, when Tadaaki and I were first married, we made rice bran pickles (nukazuke). They immediately captivated me. The mildly sour rice bran imparts an unusual tang to the vegetables that is more subtle than the typical salt, soy sauce, or vinegar pickles. Also the rice pickling mash (nukadoko) creates wick-dry pickles with an indescribable flavor that is impossible to duplicate otherwise. Nukazuke often accompanies the bowl of rice served at the end of a casual-style Japanese meal. I’ve heard of people keeping their nukadoko fresh and alive for years. But we are not one of them—we would lose track of the days and forget to turn the nukadoko to keep it from getting sour. And eventually we had to toss the whole thing and start again, though often not until the next summer, at the height of eggplant and cucumber season—two vegetables that are transformed by nukadoko into cannot-stop-eating pickles. But now we have a rice-polishing machine in the garage, so fresh rice bran is available when it is time to make our nukadoko. Because inevitably I still manage to forget to turn the mash, and inevitably the mash becomes sour. But that’s okay. Life is a process, and so is pickle making. It’s okay to make mistakes along the way. That’s called being human.
To make the nukadoko:
10 cups (about 1 pound) rice bran
Parch the rice bran over a low flame in a large wok or frying pan until dry and powdery to the touch. (The bran should be warm but must not brown.) Remove from the heat and dump into a large mixing bowl. Bring 4 cups water to a boil with the salt; stir to dissolve. Stir the brine into the parched rice bran to make a thick paste and fold in the miso. Mix well.
Pack the bran mixture (nukadoko) into a large crockery pot with a lid or a plastic container. Poke in the konbu, dried red peppers, and citrus peel (making sure they are completely submerged). Nukadoko is a living thing, so embrace the natural beauty of it and don’t be afraid of it. The nukadoko needs about a week to ripen and grow “good bacteria.” You will see no visible change each day, but you will be able to taste how the nukadoko progressively sours and develops a more complex flavor profile as each day passes.
When starting your nukadoko, store the crock at room temperature, out of direct light. Each day, starting with Day One, put a few cuttings or pieces of vegetable into the mixture and let sit overnight. The following day, pick out the vegetables and discard. Turn the mixture over with your hands to aerate and promote its health. Taste the mixture each day to understand how it is changing and how it is alive. If you forget to turn the mixture one day, it may have formed a fine white bloom. Scrape that off. If you forget for two days in a row, you risk souring the nukadoko. Three days and it’s gone—you might as well throw the whole thing out and start again. After a week, the nukadoko should be nicely seasoned and ready to use. If tended, it will keep for years.
To make nukazuke:
Good choices to pickle in nukadoko are cucumbers, carrots, okra, green beans, thin-skinned mild green peppers, Japanese eggplants, radishes, myoga, turnips, squash, or daikon. Pink- or purple-skinned vegetables such as eggplant, radish, and myoga should be rolled in salt before putting them into the bran mash to prevent discoloration.
Push the vegetables into the nukadoko until completely covered. Softer vegetables should be left for 4 to 6 hours. Thick and figrous vegetables, such as daikon, will need more time. When the vegetables are pickled, wash off the bran mash, dry well, and slice into serving-size pieces.
Whether you make pickles every day or not, you must turn the mixture every day, or it will go off—once a day in the winter, but twice a day in the summer. Most vegetables will be done in about a half a day in the summertime but will take a few hours longer on cold winter days. Also the nukadoko should be saltier in the summer to hinder spoilage. As winter approaches, you can let the salt balance gradually soften.
Taste the nukadoko every day, and never forget that it is a living thing, so multiple variables come into play. It takes some trial and error, but don’t be afraid to try and don’t be afraid to fail. It’s all a learning experience.