When Karen Solomon taught English in Japan as a member of the JET Program, she didn’t quite know what to do with the various fruits and vegetables that her kind neighbors would occasionally leave on her doorstep. These days the food writer from San Francisco knows exactly what she would do: She would pickle them.
On November 6 Solomon introduced New Yorkers to the world of Japanese pickles and promoted her latest book, Asian Pickles, at a lecture that took place at The Nippon Club and was sponsored by The Japan Foundation.
As a JET, Solomon lived and worked in Tokushima, “where basically I watched rice grow for a year,” she says. “It was absolutely lovely. I met a lot of wonderful people from around the world and had tremendous emersion into Japanese culture and enjoyed every moment of it.”
It was there that she fell in love with tsukemono, the ubiquitous Japanese pickled goodies that are snacks for beer and other alcoholic beverages, side dishes to rice, part of practically every bento, and consumed at the end of a meal to aid digestion.
“I love Asian pickles of all varieties so much that I had gone looking for a book to deepen my knowledge and to start making more pickles, and I was very surprised to find that it didn’t exist,” says Solomon.
So she decided to write about it herself, a project that took two years to complete.
Asian Pickles is a collection of pickles from all over Asia, and one chapter is devoted to Japanese pickles, which she discussed in detail during her lecture at The Nippon Club.
Solomon says she can’t claim to be an expert because “there are hundreds – perhaps thousands – of ways to make tsukemono,” she says. “I love them, I make them, I eat them.”
Referring to tsukemono as a “pickler’s pickle,” Solomon says there are many possibilities that “it’s difficult to get wrong and so many delicious ways to get it right.”
Some tsukemono take just a few minutes to prepare, like the cabbage she started at the beginning of her talk and served to us at the end. Others take months. They span different flavors and involve a wide range of fruits, vegetables, seaweed, and even fish. Solomon says the ways to make tsukemono are both traditional and evolving.
The basic concept behind pickling is that it’s food preservation, prolonging the life of food by adding vinegar or citrus or through the fermentation process.
“In many parts of Asia, Japan included, there is the ‘hunger season’ when the weather does not allow for harvest,” says Solomon, making pickling an essential part of Asian culture.
Unlike Western pickles, tsukemono are not canned, and they are generally made in smaller batches to eat immediately, whereas people in Europe and North America will create a year’s supply of food through canning. Like North American pickles, tsukemono are vinegared. But Japanese pickles are sometimes made with other brining ingredients, sometimes they’re fermented, sometimes they are both fermented and brined. Also in Japan is nuka, a pickling medium made of rice bran from white rice and mixed with water, salt, kombu, and garlic.
A great deal of care goes into the making and maintaining of nuka, but once you have the process down, “you’ll have a ‘nuka bucket’ into which at any time you can dunk fresh vegetables and make pickles in a few hours,” says Solomon.
While most North American pickles are chopped up before the pickling process, sometimes in Japan the entire vegetable or fruit is processed in large chunks and chopped up at serving.
“One of the reasons I find tsukemono so fascinating is this love of abject vegetable torture,” says Solomon, referring to how Japanese pickles are often pressed and squeezed in a container with a drop-lid.
Solomon says there are three general practices of tsukemono.
Brined – Using vinegar or soy sauce, lemon juice, toasted sesame oil, brined is the most common category of pickles. You usually leave the vegetables whole, and they can be fresh, blanched, or dried. Any kind of container can be used for preparation.
Fermented – Fresh vegetables are simply washed and more often than not left whole. Use ceramic, glass, or food-grade plastic containers with a drop-lid. Salt is the key ingredient in the fermentation process, and the pickled items must be covered completely in water. The pickles must be checked every day.
Double-processed – Is it brined? Is it fermented? Using fermented pickling substrates to make more pickles, as with nuka.
Solomon shared two recipes from Asian Pickles and let us sample four kinds of pickles.
Solomon says the recipe for the pickled nashi (Asian pear) is her way of bringing a Western pickling style to Japanese pickles. Both recipes from Asian Pickles by Karen Solomon. Reprinted with permission from the author. For more information, please visit Solomon’s website. You can download electronic versions of specific chapters from Amazon.