From The Cultured Pickle Shop

which is a chapter of Japanese Farm Food

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.

 

Carrots in nukazuke at Cultured Pickle Shop (Photo courtesy of Cultured)

 

To make the nukadoko:

  • 10 cups (about 1 pound) rice bran
  • 11 tablespoons (about 6 ounces) salt
  • 3 tablespoons brown rice miso
  • 2 (4- by 2-inch) pieces of konbu
  • 5 dried red peppers
  • 6 strips tangerine or sour orange peel, such as daidai or Seville (optional)
  • Cuttings or pieces of mild vegetables: carrot, zucchini, squash, green beans, etc.

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.