Like most Americans, I suppose, I grew up with a concept of "pickles" as, basically, heavily vinegared cucumbers. But in Japan I discovered something completely different -- a vast and fascinating world of pickles, lightly cured for the most part to amplify the natural flavors of a wide array of vegetables, and typically infused with aromatics and other ingredients (like rice bran and sake lees) to add even more layers of flavor. (See last year's post on pickles.) They're an integral part of the traditional Japanese meal and a favorite of mine, especially at breakfast. And there are countless regional varieties and family recipes. I've been very interested to learn more about Japanese pickles.
I've recently been in touch with a prodigious cook and cookbook copy editor named Nobuko Torimitsu who graciously sent me a few of her pickle recipes from Japan. Mrs. Torimitsu writes about her pickles:
"The vegetables I use as base ingredients for pickling are typically ones that are available all year long: cucumber, cabbage, daikon, carrot, kabu (turnip), mizuna and eggplant. In the spring, I also use nanohana (rape shoots), and in the winter and spring, Napa cabbage. For additional flavoring, I add ginger, shiso leaves, garlic, togarashi (chili pepper), mikan (mandarin) zest, yuzu zest, lemon peel, karashi (Japanese mustard), myoga (a kind of ginger), among others. In terms of seasoning our main 'spice' is salt. Additionally, I add vinegar, soy sauce, sugar or sesame oil. Here are a few of typical pickles that I serve in my home for breakfast."
Here's the first of Mrs. Torimitsu's pickle recipes -- more to follow in the next post. And if you have your own favorite Japanese pickles, please add them to the comments!
Mrs. Torimitsu's Asazuke ("quick pickles")
"At our home, these are our most popular, and most often prepared, pickles for breakfast."
1 Japanese cucumber (cut into small coins)
1/8 head of Cabbage (shredded)
1 Carrot (peeled and julienned), optional
Japanese sea salt
Minced ginger, chiffonaded shiso, Japanese mustard, togarashi, or minced myoga
In a large bowl, mix the vegetables with salt (measured at 2% of the weight of the vegetables). Add seasonings of your choosing: If you like spicy flavors, add minced togarashi (dried red chili), or in the summer and fall, add myoga. Feel free to add julienned carrot as well. Let rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes until liquid releases.
After the vegetables release water, squeeze out the excess liquid and serve. If too salty, you can rinse with water. Season with a few drops of soy sauce.
[NOTE: Japanese sea salt is full of minerals and with a richer, more concentrated flavor than ordinary table salt (there are no salt deposits in Japan). Also, some Japanese sea salt comes still moist with sea water, which adds an incredible brininess to the salt. Available at Japanese markets.]