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.

Pickling book

book imageI'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.

And here's the whole series

Filed under:  japanese lighter preserves and pickles vegetables vegan salad tsukemono

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I have that book at home and like it a lot. The only recipe that I wish it had that isn't in there, is for mustard leaf pickles (takana, I think). I have looked through other tsukemono books and have scoured the internet and I cannot find a single recipe for them. Do you have a mustard leaf pickle recipe you could post? I would be forever grateful!

lordaDam you didn't find that recipe in the book because takana zuke is definitely not instant. It's the kind of kyoudo ryouri (regional speciality) that people tend to just buy. The vegetables are dried in the sun, then preserved in salt, then finally in a sauce made of soy sauce and flavorings, which is allowed to rest for 2 weeks or more. (I've never made it myself...maybe if we manage to grow some takana this year I'll give it a try. )

You can buy takanazuke at most Asian markets in my area, but the tricky part problem with takanazuke is what to do with it after buying it, as it usually is sold as a whole leaf, and you want to make the delicious pickles (it's almost a relish!)

If you can get the takana, first rinse it off. Then slice it/chop it into strips around a 1/8 to 1/4 inch wide, and an couple of inches long (you don't need to be exact!) Then you fry it real good in hot oil until it's nice and shriveled and starting to brown. (It takes a little while to cook it real good.) Then season it with a little shoyu and toasted sesame seeds and serve hot or cold. Mmmmm, now that's some good takanazuke!

Out of 73+ recipes, only a dozen include meat or fish/dashi, and half of those can be easily adapted so that they don't. This book, unexpectedly, has turned out to be a great source of vegan recipe ideas.
I've been trying my hand at making tsukemono for a while now, but it's been a bit daunting. The step by step guides with photos are wonderfully encouraging (I was nervous thinking the instructions would be mostly text) and I can get most of the ingredients (sake lees and koji yeast are the trickiest, something to save for Japan). There are plenty of home-prepared dishes I recognise from obaasan's table, I'm so thankful to have the chance to replicate them. Everything I've made so far has been lovely and very simple to prepare.

I don't have the pickle book you mentioned, but I thought I'd say it's not the only Japanese pickle book out there. Easy Japanese Pickling by Seiko Ogawa is also really ace and I'd highly recommend it. You can find it on Amazon. I'm not sure how different the two books are, and whether it's worth getting both, but I plan on picking up the one you mentioned - just to check, of course. Not because I'm an impulse buyer or anything...

hi, i would like to know about takana because
i am living nepal i cant buy japanese food
so pls tell me how can make easey to takana in
nepal in my home.
thanks and regarding

I've answered this already (see comments above)

For takana, see the footnote on page 39 (a substitute for Kyo-na greens).

Can you give any suggestions on where to find a Tsukemono Press, prefereably on-line?

There is a nice looking one on Amazon - tsukemono press. Hope that helps!

yes i made takana but when i was in japan, takana taste little sour but like ur recipe taste is different so pls teach me how to make little sour and tastey
takana. thanks


Just wanted to thank you for your recommendation of the Hisamatsu book. I found a copy at the bookstore at Mitsuwa Marketplace in NJ, and have been happily working my way through it. The quick version of shibazuke is fantastic, the turnips with lemon are delicious...and the recipes are clearly illustrated and generally easy to follow (though I occasionally wish for slightly better editing). This book is made of WIN!

I tried the pickled cucumber and cabbage from your Just Bento cookbook. The cucumber came out great, but the cabbage was a little tough to chew. Do you know if I might of did something wrong, or I got the wrong type of cabbage?...etc. Thanks!

That cabbage could have been a bit mature and tough. Try one with more tender leaves, or, reserve the outer leaves for something else and try the pickles with the inner leaves instead.

Hello Maki!

This year my mission is to start making Japanese pickles, and I appreciate all of your information and recipes on the subject! My question is about pickle presses I see a lot of them on Amazon and I wonder how important they are to making pickles. Should I invest in one? What size is good for someone who is starting out and will likely be the only one eating her pickles (but would totally eat them every day if they were there to be had)? Or do I just need to read this book and can get away with using jars?

Thank you again



Thank you for your website and food blog- I love reading it!
I appreciate your recommendation of the Hisamatsu Tsukemono book- it's quite helpful with the clear instructions and pictures, and the pickles are delicious. May I ask a question about it? It mentions (Pg.9) that the table-top pickle makers should be avoided for use while making sour pickles- why is that?

Thanks again!

I am looking for this tsukemono book.
It is still available on Amazon but costs a fortune!
Any clue where to find it at a normal price?

I guess it must be out of print. I really don't know where you can find it I'm afraid. You can try some Japanese bookstores if there are any in your area. Book Off is a Japanese used bookstore; they might be worth looking at. But no guarantees at all that they'd have it. (Note that I wrote this article back in 2007.)

Has anyone used this book: Quick Pickles: Easy Recipes with Big Flavor by Chris Schlesinger?
Would this be a good general book on quick pickling? It's not Japanese specific, but with the two books posted here being out of print, I'm looking for an alternative.