The rules of life, as they occur to a child, are a matter of intuition and inheritance. One that comes to mind, sacred in its comprehensive clarity, was that nothing but chopsticks touch a bowl of gohan. It was my father’s mandate, his way of conjuring up Japan while we lived in America, but for the life of me I couldn’t get into it.
Not able to understand the wisdom as it had been passed down to us, my mother and I were used to sneaking in slices of butter, the odd drizzle of soy sauce, gravy, anything to season the ultimate blandness of steamed white rice. My father would grumble and shake his head, thinking back to where things went wrong. Even guests were expected to conform. Ignorance of the law was not a defense. Let a drop of soy sauce besmirch a corner of your rice and you were edged in his eyes towards a certain kind of barbarism.
We learned to work quickly, timing our transgressions to his occasional lapses in attention, and if work ever took him out of town, it was open season. The offenses reached such a point that he must have decided to reevaluate the code, to examine why the system had created this pattern of subversion. After all, laws only function provided they appeal to the deeper morality of the people they govern. He came to the table one evening with an unusual yellow-brown root, sliced thinly on a plate. He called it takuan, named after the Buddhist monk who supposedly invented it, a kind of Japanese pickle, instructing us to eat it with a mouthful of rice. Like the best Japanese dishes, it struck that perfect balance of flavors and textures; an earthy, savory crunch with a touch of sweetness hinting at the daikon it once was.
It made sense suddenly, having been given this outlet, and we abandoned our Western gravy drizzling, eating takuan over rice, until the day I curiously glanced at the back of the package. Like Upton Sinclair walking into the slaughterhouse, I came face to face with the modern behemoth: MSG, yellow food coloring, artificial sweeteners.
My dad looked at me, a chemical engineer and product of the war generation, asking, “What’s wrong with that?” Suddenly I was the purist. “And you call yourself Japanese,” I grumbled and shook my head, doing my best impression. The end of artificial takuan was the beginning of our deeper exploration of tsukemono, the varied and splendid world of Japanese pickling.
They contain many of the deepest flavors of Japanese food, a blend of savory and sour sired by the mysteries of fermentation, some of them complex like umeboshi (pickled plum) and others simple and fresh like kyuri shiozuke (salted cucumber). Tsukemono so perfectly complement Japanese food that we couldn’t eat a meal without them and often couldn’t keep enough in stock to satisfy everyone. The trick was to gingerly deplete the plate of tsukemono, quickly and covertly without seeming greedy. I can still eat them all without anyone noticing, before asking with a straight face: who ate all the rakkyo?
The only way to prevent this duplicity, it seemed, was to make them ourselves, so we picked up a copy of Yoko Arimoto’s Uchi no o-tsukemono (Home-style Pickles) in search of an answer. As it had been with dashi, making tsukemono from scratch deepened our appreciation of the end product immensely. Compared with the homogeneous commercial product, we learned to explore the limits of fermentation, the taste of tsukemono as they slowly blossom and expire.
The Japanese theory behind pickling is the delicate drawing of moisture from the vegetables, preventing them from spoiling, while maintaining their delicate texture and flavor. The first step is done by nature: Japanese vegetables appear slightly withered in their natural state when compared to many of the modern cultivars bred for size and durability—Japanese kyuri (cucumbers), nasu (eggplant), and daikon are all meant to be thin and firm. Next, quantities of salt are added in precise proportion to the weight of the vegetable, creating a saline solution that begins the pickling. To speed along the process, weight is applied, extracting even more liquid. From here the possibilities abound: replacing salt with soy sauce, adding nuka (rice bran) or vinegar, to create different styles of tsukemono. We started with shiozuke, simply brined in salt, proceeding next to asazuke, cucumber marinated in sanbaizu, a sweet and savory vinegar sauce. Now we have a few daikon buried in a tub of nuka in the fridge, waiting patiently and wishfully for it to become takuan. Here’s to hoping it works.
Shiozuke — salt pickles
a selection of vegetables, such as Napa cabbage, carrots, cucumber, daikon, or eggplant
salt, 2-3% of the vegetable weight
small piece of kombu (optional)
pinch of lemon zest (optional)
Rinse vegetables and pat dry. Slice into bite size pieces, rub with salt, and place them in a shallow container with the kombu, lemon zest, and chili, if using. A makeshift pickle press can be fashioned by placing a smaller plate or dish inside the original container and weighing it down with a glass of water or gardening stones. Allow the vegetables to be pressed for at least 30 minutes, depending on thickness, until they reach an appropriately soft-but-crunchy texture. Shiozuke pickles keep in the fridge until the next day.
Asazuke — vinegar pickles
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1 Tbsp soy sauce (shoyu)
2/3 cup dashi
1/2 tsp salt
In a small saucepan over low heat, mix together the sugar, rice vinegar, shoyu, dashi, and salt, and warm just enough to melt the sugar. Meanwhile, thinly slice (1/8″) as many cucumbers as you’d like (the Japanese variety are best, but Persian cucumbers can be substituted). In a ziplock bag or small container, combine the two: for every 100 grams of cucumber, add 2 tablespoons of the sauce (sanbaizu). Marinate for 30 minutes to an hour, then drain the sanbaizu before serving. The leftover sanbaizu keeps in the fridge indefinitely, and the asazuke pickles will keep until the next day.