Japanese pickles (漬物, tsukemono) are an important part of the Japanese diet. They are served with practically every traditional meal alongside rice and miso soup. They are valued for their unique flavors and commonly used as a garnish, relish, condiment, palate cleanser or digestive.
Tsukemono first appeared way back in Japanese history in the days before refrigeration when pickling was used to preserve food. As a result, some traditionally prepared types of pickles can be kept practically indefinitely. The different methods used to make tsukemono vary from a simple salting or vinegar brining, to more complicated processes involving cultured molds and fermentation.
All kinds of vegetables and some fruits are used to make tsukemono including, but not limited to, Japanese radish (daikon), cucumber, eggplant, carrot, cabbage, water lily root, ginger, shallots and plums (ume). Sometimes seaweed and other seafood are added to pickle mixtures for flavor and variety. Some pickling methods are also used to preserve and flavor seafood and meat dishes.
Below are the some of the most popular types of pickles:
Salt pickles, or shiozuke, are the simplest and most common types of pickles. The most basic consist simply of lightly salted, sliced vegetables, which result in pickles with the crisp texture and mild flavor of fresh (usually seasonal) vegetables. Heavily salted pickles, on the other hand, are more involved to prepare and have strong, complex flavors. Among these are red pickled Japanese plums (umeboshi), which are often used to flavor rice balls (onigiri).
Rice Bran (nukazuke)
Nukazuke are common household pickles fermented in a mixture of roasted rice bran (the hard outer skin of the rice that is removed when polishing the rice grain), salt, konbu, and other ingredients. Whole vegetables are stirred into the mash and allowed to cure anywhere from a day to several months. The resulting crisp, salty and tangy pickles are then rinsed clean, sliced and served. Nukazuke are rich in lactobacillus and said to aid in digestion.
Sake Lees (kasuzuke)
Kasuzuke are imperishable pickles preserved in a mixture of sake lees (the yeast mash that is left over after filtering sake), salt, sugar and sweet cooking wine (mirin). They are allowed to cure for anywhere from several days to several years, and the resulting pickles may be slightly alcoholic with flavors that vary from sweet and mild to strong and pungent depending on how long they were cured for.
Soya Sauce (shoyuzuke)
Shoyuzuke are pickles preserved in a soya sauce base. This method produces a wide range of pickles with flavors that vary from light and crispy to dark brown, salty, sweet relishes such as fukujinzuke. Note that shoyuzuke is a different preservation method than tsukudani, which are foods preserved by cooking in soya sauce and sweet cooking wine (mirin).
Pickles brined in vinegar are known as suzuke. Rice vinegar is commonly used as the pickling agent and lends a crunchy texture and sweet and sour flavor to the resulting pickles. However, rice vinegar has a low acidity and suzuke pickles will not keep long unrefrigerated.
Similar to nukazuke, misozuke pickles are made by covering vegetables in miso, a fermented soya bean mash. These types of pickles tend to be crisp with a salty miso flavor. Misozuke and nukazuke are made of similar vegetables, such as cucumbers, carrots and eggplant, and it may be difficult to tell the two types of pickles apart by just looking at them. Misozuke is also a popular way of preserving and marinating meat and fish.
Common pickle dishes
The following are some of the more common types of tsukemono that travelers are likely to encounter. Most can be found nationwide, except where noted, however the exact ingredients of each dish may vary from region to region and household to household.
Umeboshi are Japanese plums (related to apricots), which have been salted and dried. The wrinkly red pickles are extremely salty and sour, although sweeter versions exist. Umeboshi serve as a preservative and digestive. They are eaten with all types of traditional meals, and often accompany the rice in boxed lunches (bento). Umeboshi are also one of the most popular fillings for rice balls (onigiri).
Takuan is made of Japanese radishes (daikon), which have been sun dried and pickled in a mixture of salt, rice bran and sugar. The finished product is a sweet, crunchy pickle that is sliced and served alongside rice or other dishes. Takuan ranges from brownish white to fluorescent yellow in color. In Akita Prefecture they are additionally smoked and enjoyed as iburigakko.
Assortments of nukazuke pickles consisting of cucumber, carrots, eggplant, daikon or turnip (kabu) are often served alongside set menu meals (teishoku) or as a part of the rice set (shokuji) in kaiseki ryori (Japanese haute cuisine) meals. Often similar assortments of vegetables pickled in salt or miso are served instead.
Kyuri asazuke are simple pickles made of cucumbers marinated in a salt brine (shiozuke) that is sometimes seasoned with konbu, togarashi pepper and/or vinegar. Whole cucumbers served on a stick are often pickled this way and sold by street vendors at festivals, temple approaches and popular tourist spots, especially during spring and summer when they are a refreshing treat.
Hakusai no Sokusekizuke
Hakusai no Sokusekizuke is a quick and simple salt pickle dish made of lightly salted hakusai cabbage which is often mixed with carrots and cucumber and seasoned with yuzu zest, konbu and togarashi pepper. The result is a salty, crisp pickle with a slightly spicy citrus flavor. It is one of the most common pickles found in Japan and is often served alongside set menu meals (teishoku).
Narazuke are deep brown pickles native to the Nara Region of Japan, from which they get their name. Vegetables, typically daikon, uri or cucumber, are soaked in sake lees (kasuzuke) in a process where they may cure for several years. As a result the pickles have a strong, pungent flavor which is often punctuated with an overtly alcoholic bite.
Shibazuke is a Kyoto specialty pickle made of cucumber, eggplant, perilla leaves (shiso), ginger and myoga (a mild flavored relative of ginger) pickled in plum vinegar (umezu), a byproduct of making pickled plums (umeboshi). The salty, slightly sour, purple pickles are commonly served in Kyoto cuisine.
Senmaizuke is another Kyoto specialty pickle. It is made of thin slices of turnip arranged brined in sweet vinegar seasoned with konbu and togarashi pepper. The resulting thin disks (senmaizuke means thousand layer pickle) are sweet and sour with a slightly crunchy texture.
Saikyozuke (lit. West Kyoto pickle) are slices of fish, typically a whitefish such as cod or sablefish, which have been preserved and marinated in miso (fermented soya bean) paste. The slices are then grilled or broiled, and served either hot or at room temperature. Fish preserved this way gets a sweet, caramelized flavor due to the miso.
Nozawana are a specialty pickle from Nozawa Onsen in Nagano Prefecture; however, they are commonly served all over Japan. Nozawana are a type of turnip greens which are dried and pickled in a salt brine seasoned with togarashi pepper and wasabi. The salty, slightly spicy leaves and stems are served cut into bite-sized pieces or chopped into a fine relish.
Local to Matsumae Town in Hokkaido, matsumaezuke is an interesting combination of regional specialties of Hokkaido such as squid, konbu, kazunoko (herring roe) and carrots, seasoned with sake, soy sauce and mirin (sweet cooking wine). It has attained nationwide popularity.
Most tourists are probably already familiar with gari, the thin slices of sweet pickled ginger that is served alongside sushi. Gari has a sweet and sour flavor with a slightly spicy bite. It is meant to be eaten between sushi pieces as a palate cleanser, so that the unique flavor of each piece can be fully appreciated. Gari is naturally light yellow, but may also be dyed pink.
Beni Shoga is julienned young ginger that has been pickled in plum vinegar (umezu), a byproduct of making pickled plums (umeboshi). The bright red, salty and spicy pickles are served as a garnish on top of a variety of dishes such as gyudon, takoyaki and yakisoba.
Fukujinzuke is a mixture of Japanese radish (daikon), lotus root, cucumber and eggplant which are preserved in a soya sauce and sweet cooking wine (mirin) base. The sweet brown or red relish is served as a garnish to Japanese curry (kare raisu).
Rakkyo are sweet pickled scallions that are served alongside Japanese curry. Rakkyo lend a sweet, crunchy bite that, like fukujinzuke, helps to augment the spicy and salty flavors of curry.