Japanese Travels Part 1-The Delicious Art of Pickles
Having just returned in the last week or so from Japan and China, I am still totally overwhelmed with the tastes and smells that made up my holiday.
A whole 20 long days enjoying the fast paced, expo crazed city of Shanghai coupled with the graceful tranquillity of Kyoto and a final few days in what is always the adventure of Osaka made for a truly memorable experience.
Returning home and back to reality is always hard and a whole week after my husband was rather sick of my depressive plodding and grumpy demeanor. I just really wanted to be back in Kyoto having another draft Asahi, another sticky charcoal cooked treat, and another trip to a food market so I could photograph yet more tsukemono as if I didn't already have hundreds of photos.
The love affair of Japan I am finding is not unique to me and my husband. I am pleased to be reassured that we are not alone in our swooning when we hear the hushed tones of a group of Japanese woman shopping for kimono or the splendidly loose laughter of a drunken salary man. There is a group of us out there who feel very deeply that we have found our second home in this country and for the most part I find that they are all people who are as openly obsessed by food as I. The Japanese certainly make no qualms about their food obsession so it is nice to be surrounded by those who also really worry about what they find in their food, how it tastes, where it has come from and when we might be eating it.
I plan to write a bit more about various eating experiences more but for now I thought that a general staring point needed to be made somewhere in the massive experience that was me acting like a giant attempting to fit the entirety of Kyoto into my mouth at once.
So I think as good as any place to start is with pickles. Tsukemono is the name for pickles in Japan and it is a word that is so much a part of everyday life it is as intrinsic as rice.
With literally thousands to choose from, it makes it hard when you walk a place like Nishiki market in Kyoto's centre, to make out any difference between one stall and another. You do begin to think that surely they are a replica of one another and the best tsukemono maker on the day will win. On looking a little closer and making use of the generosity of the tastings available, you discover that each one is different. Subtle differences make good tsukemono truly an art form and such a beautiful thing to see piled high in an alley way packed with shoppers.
To try and simplify things, the identification of pickles can be broken down into salt pickles, rice bran pickles and miso pickles.
Salt pickles or shio-zuke are the easiest to make yourself at home and uses a very simple process of brining the chosen ingredient. Salted vegetables are weighted down to draw out moisture resulting in the creation of brine that then pickles the vegetable.
This can be done just in a plastic container with a weight on top at home and most Japanese kitchens use a small shio-zuke press that has a screw down top that places more pressure on the vegetable inside.
Salt Pickled Cucumber
3 Japanese cucumbers, unpeeled and cut on a diagonal into rounds (look for these at Korean and Chinese food stores-they are smaller and thinner with a dark green glossy skin)
3 teaspoons salt
Mix the salt one teaspoon at a time into the cucumbers.
Pack into a jar or container and place a heavy weight on top to push the cucumbers down
Leave at least 10 hours for the salt to brine the cucumbers.
Remove the weight and wash the cucumbers well to remove all the salt residue
Pat dry and serve
The Shio-zuke Kyuri will last up to a week in the fridge
You can use this very simple process to salt pickle anything at all from eggplants to cabbage and carrots.
Rice bran pickles or nuka-zuke are a little more complex only in that you need to have access to rice bran. Naturally in Japan that is rather easy but anywhere else in the world you may have a great deal more difficulty. The rice bran adds a bigger, more gutsy flavour that makes them ideal with beer as a nibble or with rice as a side dish.
Look at a good health food store as nuka is a macrobiotic product that is full of vitamins and minerals. Look for nuka that has been unprocessed and still retains that natural goodness through lack of preservative, pasteurisation or additives.
A batch of nuka can last for years and more rice bran can be added if your batch has become a little too wet.
Mix water with the rice bran to make a stodgy mess. Place some of the mix into your pickling container and then lay pieces of kombu (dried seaweed that is available from a good Japanese food store) on top of the mix. Pack the remaining rice barn in to the container adding a few cloves of garlic and slices of ginger for flavour as you go. The rice bran will take a few days to ripen before it can be used to pack vegetables in for pickling. The process is much like miso pickling and takes a bit longer than salt pickling so you will need to wait a few months before you can sample your nuka-zuke.
Pack the vegetables in and ensure they are covered well before popping them into the fridge. Some vegetables will take a shorter amount of time dependent on their texture so lesser time for softer vegetables and longer periods for hard vegetables.
These barrels of nuka I found in Nishiki Market in Kyoto. They have a distinctive small and strong taste but this shows the variety of vegetables that can be used to make nuka-zuke.
Miso pickles or miso-zuke is one of the oldest varieties of pickles. With miso coming to Japan sometime around the 6th century, the introduction of such a beautifully flavourful product would have been quite something. Coming all the way from China perhaps via Korea, the taste of miso is far more intense than most Japanese flavours that you encounter (perhaps with the exception of nato) but it is a very versatile pantry essential.
Using different types of miso will naturally give you different tasting pickles to have on offer but miso pickling does take longer than salt pickling. The process is a great deal slower so parboiling vegetables before they are added to miso and left to their own devices will help speed up the process. You are looking at a time frame of about three months to get something that has good full flavour but it will depend greatly on the density of the vegetables.
To make a batch of miso pickled daikon (available widely now and always available in good Asian food stores) simply peel and slice into desired shape and width. Pack the daikon in to miso of your choice making sure that the daikon is covered. Place in the fridge for up to four months, removing what you need for a meal. Wash and pat the daikon dry and serve.
The miso is still able to be used so nothing here is wasted at all and the flavour will be enhanced by what ever vegetable you have had pickling in it for the past few months.
Again at Nishiki Market, this stall had all sorts of varities to chose from that.Why make your own when these have been expertly made for you?
There are still more varieties but I think for now these are the three I will try to master.
As you can see salt pickling takes very little time to action so preparing the night before, you could have fresh shio-zuke easily for dinner the next night.