Sarah B. Hodge

Sarah B. Hodge ()

One of the great joys of living in Japan is experiencing the wide range of traditional Japanese pickles, or tsukemono, that are served with every meal. There are hundreds of varieties of tsukemono, but the major preservation techniques are salting, brining in vinegar, pickling in rice bran and fermenting in miso or sake lees.

Did you know you can also make your own Japanese pickles quickly and easily at home?

An excellent guide on the subject is my friend Nancy Singleton Hachisu’s “Preserving the Japanese Way,” (https://amzn.to/2XYiyVr) which features both traditional and modern interpretations of tsukemono with detailed how-tos and recipes. Elizabeth Andoh also gives an intensive two-day tsukemono workshop at her Taste of Culture program in Tokyo every summer, which I highly recommend (https://tasteofculture.com/programs/).

In November 2019, I had the honor of hosting Dutch tsukemono and fermentation expert Peter van Berckel (https://petervanberckel.nl/ ) on day trips to Mt. Takao and Fujinomiya, where we discussed Japanese foodways and his recent tsukemono cookbook. Fermentation is in Peter’s genes; his ancestors were gin distillers and brewers since the 1700s. He has been involved with health food for 30 years, including making sourdough bread, kombucha, kvass, kefir and tempeh as well as incorporating Japanese macrobiotic products like miso, shoyu and tamari, natto, mirin, umeboshi and pickles.

“It really appealed to me that you can easily support your health with a very quick and accessible method, which at the same time gives a very tasty and crunchy result,” Peter explains. “The workshop in turn gave rise to writing my book. I visited Japan and my knowledge was confirmed in everyday life. Fermentation is an adventurous and culinary exploration and I continue to see the positive effects on my health, digestion and vitality.”

To make pickles at home, the type of pickle will determine the tools required. The most basic is salt-massaged pickles that can be made in a Ziploc bag; these are ready anywhere between 90 minutes and a couple of hours. Nuka (rice bran) pickles also have a fairly quick fermenting time, but nuka pots require TLC. Much like a sourdough starter, Nuka’s living single-cell organisms (mainly lactobacilli and yeast) require regular stirring and feeding. Japanese housewives add eggshells, scraps and peels, fish bones, and even beer to flavor and feed the nuka; adding togarashi chili or sansho pepper berries can help prevent spoiling.

For those new to pickling, I recommend starting with a salted pickle. Cabbage, daikon, and carrots are all delicious with this technique. And the Picklestone pickle press is the perfect tool to experiment with pickling at home!

Picklestone designer Tomonori Tanaka wanted to address food waste by reusing veggie scraps and found commercial plastic pickle presses lacking, so he decided to engineer and crowdfund his own. Made from durable glass, fragrant hinoki (cypress) and aji stone from Kagawa and Inai stone from Ishinomaki, the press (available in three different sizes) is both functional and beautiful.

To use, wash your vegetables (or scraps) and chop into bite-size pieces, sprinkle with salt (between 1 – 3% the weight of your veggies), add to the Picklestone, and put the weight and lid on. Leave on the counter at least half a day to ferment (this accelerates the growth of good bacteria), then place in the refrigerator. The next day, pour off the liquid and enjoy! You can also make pickles using vinegar or soy sauce. The Picklestone comes with several suggested recipes in English including shibazuke, pickled ginger, soy sauce pickled cabbage and Fukujinzuke, a mix of seven different veggies in tribute to the Seven Lucky Gods.

My absolute favorite tsukemono are the squeaky, crunchy, magenta shibazuke. Originally a specialty of Kyoto, shibazuke can now be found in supermarkets across Japan, but making your own is a fun and delicious quarantine kitchen project! The brilliant red-purple color comes from salted red shiso leaves, a specialty of Ohara near Kyoto. Red shiso leaves are commonly available in Japanese grocery stores during the summer, but if you can’t find them in your area, you can use red plum vinegar instead, which is the byproduct from making pickled plums. It will still give your pickles a lighter pink color, but not as pronounced.

You can order PIcklestone through the official shop at https://picklestone.theshop.jp/. Tanaka just launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to increase the scale of production, and you can read more about the Picklestone product here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/231577951.

VIDEO: How to use the Picklestone: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJ68j8o88iA

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