Karen Solomon Introduces New Yorkers to Tsukemono

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.

Karen Solomon, Asian Pickles, pickles, tsukemono, Japanese cuisine, The Japan Foundation, The Nippon Club, NYC, JET program

Karen Solomon with her latest book, ASIAN PICKLES

“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.

Karen Solomon, Asian Pickles, pickles, tsukemono, Japanese cuisine, The Japan Foundation, The Nippon Club, NYC, JET program

Tsukemono sampler from Karen Solomon. Clockwise from top: kombu, cabbage, carrots (from nuka), and nashi

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.

Preserved Seaweed (Kombu no Tsukudani)

Tsukudani is a category of preserved food that is reliant upon a lot of soy sauce and sugar and reduce it until it is almost a glaze. Savory and sweet tastes.

Time: About 2 ½ hours

  • 3 ounces kombu
  • ½ cup Japanese soy sauce
  • 6 tablespoons mirin
  • 6 tablespoons brown sugar (white sugar is more commonly used)
  • ¼ cup unseasoned rice vinegar
  • Juice of ½ lemon

Using kitchen shears, cut the kombu into 2 by 1 ½-inch squares. Cover with water by 2 inches and let soak for 1 hour.

Drain the seaweed, reserving ¾ cup of the soaking liquid. It’s okay if the seaweed has a slimy, viscous texture – there’s no need to rinse it away. In a heavy-bottomed, nonreactive pot, combine the kombu, soy sauce, mirin, sugar, vinegar, and soaking liquid, and stir. Make sure the kombu is submerged in the liquid. Cover, place over high heat, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered for 15 minutes, stirring twice.

Remove the lid and adjust the heat so the liquid maintains a low simmer; you want some persistent bubbles, but no foam. Simmer for about 1 hour, stirring often, and as the liquid reduces, lower the heat to keep it from splattering.

The liquid will thicken to a syrup that streaks across the bottom of the pot, disappearing nearly entirely. As it nears this point, stir more frequently to prevent scorching, and add the lemon juice. Taste the kombu. It should be very tender; if it’s not, stir in another ¼ cup of water, cover, and cook on low heat for 10 minutes before removing the lid and letting the liquid reduce until dry once again.

At this point, your kombu no tsukadani is ready to eat. It can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator, for at least a year.

Pickled Asian Pear (Nashi) with Lemon

Time: 3 days

  • 2 pounds Asian pears, or any other sweet, firm pear
  • 4 (2-inch) pieces of lemon zest
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 4 slices pickled ginger
  • 1 ½ cups sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 cup white wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons mirin

Select pears that are firm and on the small side. Peel them, cut them into quarters, and core them. Combine the lemon zest, lemon juice, ginger, sugar, salt, vinegar, and mirin in a medium nonreactive saucepan off-heat; don’t worry that the sugar is not yet dissolved. Add the cut pears to the pan to coat them in the acidic brine.

Meanwhile, fill a second medium saucepan with water and bring it to a simmer. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pears to the simmering water, leaving behind as much of the brine as possible. Simmer the pears until they turn white and are just cooked through but still quite firm, about 6 minutes. The pears should be pierced easily with a fork, but you don’t want them to overcook and get mushy. Drain the pears and transfer them to 2 clean pint jars, packing them tightly and tucking them under the curved “shoulders” of the jar.

Bring the brine pot to a boil, uncovered, stirring to dissolve the sugar, about 2 minutes. Once it’s boiling, turn off the heat. Divide the ginger the lemon zest between the two jars. Pour the brine over the pears in the jars to cover completely (reserve the leftover brine). Tighten the lids on the jars immediately and let them rest on the countertop for 1 day before moving them to the refrigerator. The pears are ready to eat in 3 days, but taste even better after 5. They will keep their flavor for about a month in the refrigerator, but the color will begin to change after 2 weeks.

I know, I know . . . leftover brine. Let it cool, pour it into a shaker bottle, and combine with your favorite salad oil. It makes a wonderful salad dressing.