Japanese Pickled Vegetables (tsukemono)



Pickles once played an important roll in the Japanese dinner. Most of the daily nutritional needs of the Japanese population were met by a bowl of rice; miso soup with a protein food such as tofu, chicken, or pork and seasonal fresh vegetables; and pickled vegetables on the side. In the past, tsukemono was the method of preserving fresh produce so that people could enjoy a variety of vegetables even through the cold winter months.

Traditional Japanese pickling does not employ vinegar. In Japan, vegetables are pickled in plain salt, sake lees, rice-bran mash, mustard paste, and miso. When I was young, home pickling in rice-bran mash, nukamiso, was very popular in Japan. Rich in B vitamins, rice bran is an excellent pickling medium. My mother made wonderful nukamiso pickles with seasonal vegetables such as eggplant, daikon, cabbage, and carrot. Her recipe for the pick ling mash includes rice bran, salt, kombu (kelp), soybeans, mustard powder, and Japanese red chile pepper.

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Every guest who came to our house claimed that my mother’s nukamiso pickles were the best in town, and we were really proud of them. Every night, she added fresh vegetables to the mash for the next day’s consumption. Before placing the vegetables in the pickling pot, she tossed the strong-smelling mash hundreds of times with her hands lifting it from the bottom of the pot to the top to provide oxygen and prevent the mash from becoming moldy. Unfortunately, the tradition of making nukamiso pickles, which requires hard work and constant watching, has nearly disappeared from the Japanese home kitchen I myself no longer make nukamiso pickles at home.

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Astill popular home method of tsukemono production is salt pickling. In the past, large quantities of salt were used in brine pickling, for the purpose was long-term preservation. Today we make pickles for consumption within hours, or a few days at most. This requires a quantity of salt equal to only 2 percent of the weight of the vegetables. For example, if you are using about 7 ounces of vegetables, you need 1 teaspoon salt to make pickles that will be consumed within a few hours. To make pickles that will be readyfor consumption after two to three days requires 4 percent salt by weight; the 7 ounces of vegetables require 2 teaspoons salt.

You can use two or more unopened cans of food together, or go outside and find one or more stones, weighing altogether around 2 pounds. Or you can use a Japanese pickling pot, a plastic container with an inner lid that is screwed down to apply proper pressure to the vegetables (see: Japanese Cooking Techniques )

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