Introduction to quick Japanese tsukemono (pickles)
In Japan, tsukemono or pickles are used as hashi-yasume, literally “chopstick resters”, side dishes that have a totally different texture and flavor. So for instance if you had some grilled meat with a sweet-savory sauce as the main course, you might have some simple, crunchy pickled cucumber slices to go with it.
This week I’ll be posting some quick Japanese vegetable pickle recipes. Japanese pickles can be very loosely divided into three kinds: the kind that take some time to ‘ripen’, but then last indefinitely, rather like Western style pickles; the kind that is ready in a few days, but which require a pickling bed that takes time to make and to maintain; and finally, the quick and easy kind that can be made and eaten within a day. The last two kinds do not keep well - just like fresh vegetables, they must be eaten within a short time.
Quick pickles, called sokusekizuke (instant pickles) or ichiya-zuke (overnight pickles) depending on how long they take to come to full flavor, are very easy to make as their names suggest. They are a great way to prepare vegetables without having to add any additional fat, though a few recipes do call for some oil.
Key components of quick Japanese pickles
- The vegetables. Choose very fresh vegetables, preferably in season. All kinds of vegetables can be used alone or in combination. The most popular pickling vegetables are Chinese / nappa cabbage, regular cabbage, cucumbers, turnips and daikon radish, but many other vegetables can be used - carrots, celery, various greens, etc.
- Salt. Salt is used to extract the moisture from the vegetables as well as for flavor.
- Umami ingredients. These are added for extra flavor and to bring out the natural flavor of the vegetables. The most common umami ingredient used is kombu seaweed. Other ones include tiny dried shrimp, bonito flakes, and dried shiitake mushrooms. Sometimes instant dashi granules or ajinomoto (MSG) are used too.
- Other flavoring ingredients. Varying these can give character and interest to pickles. Some common flavoring ingredients include: shiso leaves, fresh or dried; various citrus zests, flavored oils, citrus juices, vinegar, and aromatic vegetables like ginger and green onions.
I’ve only found one book in English totally dedicated to quick Japanese pickles: Quick & Easy Tsukemono: Japanese Pickling Recipes by Ikuko Hisamatsu. It’s pretty good with lots of colorful and helpful photos, and given the price I would recommend it to anyone who likes the flavor and concept of an alternative way to prepare fresh vegetables besides making a salad. It is a translation from a Japanese book though, so you do see some ingredients that are commonplace in Japan but aren’t elsewhere. There’s no explanation of those ingredients so it could be a bit confusing. (Update: It seems that this book is now out of print unfortunately. I haven’t seen any other books out there on the subject in English.)
I’m going to try to stick to ingredients that are fairly easy to get outside of Japan, or at least can be easily bought from mailorder sources, for my recipes this week (as always).
Care with instant pickles
I’m repeating myself but just to emphasize: instant pickles are not meant to be kept for a long time. They should be eaten within a few days, and stored in the refrigerator.
Most instant pickle recipes are rather salty, so if sodium intake is a concern you may want to decrease the amount and increase other flavoring ingredients, or add a bit of vinegar or citrus juice.