National cuisine is as symbolic of Japan as Mount Fuji. Whoever is interested in Japan knows that this country honors tradition. It’s also traditional for the Japanese to treat their food. Above all, Japanese cuisine values the freshness of the product and its seasonality. And the chef shows his skills by striving to preserve the original look and taste of the product as fully as possible.
However, in Japanese cuisine there are two dishes that can be called the basis, served at the table all year round: rice and zukemono. Tsukemono are Japanese pickles, but in our understanding they are more like pickled vegetables. There is even a Japanese saying: “Nani wanakutomo ko no mono” (there may be nothing as long as there are pickles), which means: as long as there is rice and tsukemono on the table, it is a full meal.
In VII century Buddhism came to Japan and Japanese diet became more vegetarian, its basis was rice with vegetable side dish. But in many regions of Japan, fresh vegetables are available only in certain seasons and then pickles, known as zukemono, provided a stable source of traditional vegetable dishes, available all year round.
Japan is surrounded by oceans and, probably because of this, the first marinade was salt water.
When seasonings such as miso soy pasta, soy sauce and vinegar were introduced, they too were used for marinating, resulting in a huge number of tsukemono species. Thus, from the 7th to 19th centuries, tsukemono was an integral part of Japanese food.
Vegetables pickled in miso or soy sauce can be found not only in Japan, but also in China and other Asian countries. However, pickles cooked with rice bran (nukazuke), sake sake sake (kasuzuke) and koji (kojizuke) leaven are completely unique and are cooked only in Japan.
Nukazuke (Nuka-zuke) is cooked by marinating vegetables in rice bran (kome-nuka) and salt paste. The bran is prepared by removing the outer brown layer from the rice grain while grinding it. Only Japan has invented this method of marinating, and no other country in Asia uses it. Rice bran is rich in vitamins B1 and B2, so it is a very useful dish.
Rice bran and salt water are used to knead porridge and leave it to ferment, resulting in the release of lactic acid. Fresh vegetables are placed on a so-called “salty bed” for the night, then they are taken out, washed and cut. Once cooked nukah paste can be used repeatedly. Until recently, a pot of nucca pasta could be seen in every kitchen.
One type of nukazuke is takuan-zuke, a daikon marinated in rice bran and salt pre-dried outdoors, a leader among all the tsukemono. One by one.
It’s named after Takuan, a Zen Buddhist who lived in the early 17th century and invented this marinating method. Takuanzuke became popular at the end of the Taisho period, the early Shouva period.
Kasu-zuke is cooked by marinating vegetables in sake sludge, which is deposited when rice is fermented during sake making.
This type of zucemono contains a high percentage of alcohol and has a corresponding smell. Since alcohol is a powerful preservative, these zucemonos can be stored for a very long time. It is one of the oldest recipes.
One type of casuzuke, Nara-zuke, is made from shiro-uri (bottled pumpkin). Nara-zuke is considered an expensive dish.
Koji-zuke is cooked by marinating vegetables in koji yeast. Koji is a thread-shaped mushroom used to ferment soybeans, saccharinate rice and other grains in the process of producing alcoholic beverages.
During pickling, the vegetables absorb the amylase released by the leaven, resulting in a characteristic sweet flavour.
Bettara-zuke, marinated in a koji and sugar daikon leaven, is a favourite sweet tooth dish. It’s a Tokyo signature dish, a recipe that was invented over 200 years ago.
Shiozuke is literally pickles, the simplest kind of zukemono. Thinly chopped vegetables are salted and placed under the oppression for a certain time. The fastest are ichizuke, cooked for one night only, the most famous are umeboshi.
Umeboshi is cooked from ume. Ume (kanji 梅; hiragana うめ) is a Prunus mume, commonly known as a Japanese or Chinese plum or Japanese apricot. Immature fruits are put into brine and left to ripen.
Often for taste and to give the fruit a red colour, red siso leaves (an annual plant, botanical name of the railing) are added to the brine. Umeboshi is a very healthy product, contains a lot of ascorbic acid, and is considered an essential element of a healthy diet.
Cooked from a finely chopped daikon, eggplant, cucumber, lotus root and others (7 in total), which are marinated in soy sauce. For flavour, add railing (siso, which gives them red colour), shiitake, inode sesame seed.
As a result, they turn out to be crispy. The name of this zucemono is associated with the legend of the Seven Gods of Luck (7 vegetables in the recipe). Fukujinzuke is a popular curry garnish in the Japanese style, an analog of chutney in Indian curry.
Teppo-zuke: Cut the bottle pumpkin on both sides, clean the seeds to make a hollow “tube” and then fill it with red pepper and marinate in soy sauce. This type of zukemono is cooked in Narita, near Tokyo, and it got its name for its appearance similar to a gun muzzle – warm.
Miso-zuke is a variety of vegetables, marinated in soy paste miso with sake. Miso soaks the vegetables to protect them from spoilage. Zucemono cooked in this way can be stored for a very long time. This recipe is over 1000 years old, it’s the most common recipe in Japan.
Senmaizuke: a giant turnip with a diameter of over 15 cm, very finely chopped and marinated in sweet vinegar with salt under the press for several days. Traditionally, this tsukemono is cooked in Kyoto in winter, most deliciously eaten with bread.
Interestingly, the widely known in Japan turnip (Tokyo turnip) reaches 10 cm in diameter, but the one that grows around Kyoto (shougoin kabu) is much larger! The name senmaizuke can be translated as “thousand” (SEN) pieces (MAI) of pickles (ZUKE).