Think of pickles—what do you think of? Invariably, a sour crunch? Vats of bright green dill, maybe? The Japanese notion of a pickle often comes as a surprise.
What the Japanese call tsukemono, or “pickled things,” may be tart and crunchy, yes, or they may be soft, deeply sweet, and imbued with umami. They may be quickly brined, for a subtle change in flavor and texture, or long-fermented, until entirely transformed. Tsukemono don’t necessarily rely on vinegar, as many other pickles do, but ingredients such as miso, salt, rice bran, or sake lees. They’re not limited to vegetables, either: Chrysanthemum petals, whole plums, and even meat and fish may become tsukemono; the arena is vast.
Whatever the style of tsukemono, it is an essential, ever-present component of a Japanese meal, whether nibbled with a savory breakfast, lunch, or dinner. These pickles can act as a small salad, not needing any dressing; a refreshing, palate-cleansing bite between mouthfuls of rice; and an aid for digestion. With their vivid, varied hues, from electric-yellow to purplish-black, tsukemono also help bring a balance of the five elemental colors—red, yellow, green, black, and white—to every meal, as desired in traditional Japanese cuisine and philosophy.
Japanese food is driven by the seasons, a philosophy called “shun,” and tsukemono are no exception. There are specific seasons for making and eating the hundreds of varieties of tsukemono, each meant to capture that particular ingredient at its prime.
“It is not about being able to serve foods out of season,” said Elizabeth Andoh, who has written extensively about Japan’s food culture. “The Japanese think of tsukemono as being able to capture the moment—with a subtle hand, or more of a punch.”
Some tsukemono are popular throughout Japan. Umeboshi, for example, are quintessential tsukemono—the whole of Japan may make these sour, salty preserved plums. (Still, how they do so will vary from town to town, village to village, and house to house—some intensely tart, some mild and honeyed, others laced with ribbons of red shiso leaf.) The classic yellow Takuan, a daikon pickle created by and named after a notable Zen Buddhist monk, is another mainstay across the country.
Other tsukemono are tied to specific regions and prefectures. These iconic varieties are as instantly recognizable as a soccer team’s jersey and are popular souvenirs or gifts to bring back from travels.
From Nara in the west, you’ve got narazuke, traditionally white melon matured in sweet sake lees (kasuzuke) for months or even years, taking on a dark brown hue and a deep, sweet funk. In Kyoto, the signature pickle is senmaizuke, or “thousand-slice pickles,” comprised of ultra-thin, mandolin-cut wheels of turnip tasting of sweet vinegar, kombu, and togarashi pepper.
Kyoto is also famous for shibazuke, an eggplant pickle colored magenta by red shiso leaves and myoga, Japanese ginger buds.
In Akita prefecture in the north, where white winters are long and the growing season is short, communities adapt their tsukemono to fit the environment. Since heavy snow and short days limit opportunities to sun-dry daikon, the vegetable is smoked instead, then pickled to last through the remainder of the harsh winter. The result is the region’s famous iburigakko, smokier than a campfire.
In Japan, you can find tsukemono everywhere, from high-end shops to convenience stores. Modern shipping and distribution have also made it possible for people to sample regional specialties without having to travel.
Brick-and-mortar shops and online markets offer pickle enthusiasts the experience of tasting regional styles and supporting generations of farmers and craft artisans. Kintame, for instance, has been making Kyoto-style tsukemono since 1879, and today sells its wares both to-go and as part of a sit-down meal at locations in Kyoto and Tokyo.
Depachika, the famous food halls located in the basements of Japanese department stores, are strategic places to experience the plethora of regional tsukemono tastes. A white-gloved attendant may present you with a range of different specialties to sample before you buy.
Pickling at Home
Traditionally, Japanese households all made their own tsukemono, relying on pickle rooms and cool space under floorboards in the days before refrigeration. Most modern homes still have these underground nooks, in addition to refrigerators, where at least a few jars of pickles, miso, and other essentials can flourish.
A staple in the traditional Japanese home is a nuka pickle pot, used to make nukazuke. This type of pickle relies on nuka—rice bran—fermented with a mix of dried, umami-rich items, such as shiitake mushrooms, hot pepper, yuzu peel, or sardines (niboshi). This nukadoko—or pickling bed—is stored in a special, often ceramic, pot.
Preparing a nukadoko can take months, as the ingredients ferment and become the perfect environment for making nukazuke. This longer-term method of pickling demands that the caregiver tend to the nukadoko daily, using bare, clean hands to turn it over, adding oxygen and health-promoting microorganisms. With careful upkeep, these living treasure troves can be kept alive over generations. Andoh tends a five-generation nuka pickle pot, and teaches others how to start their own.
But even without a Japanese home or ingredients, or starter cultures like nukadoko, there are simpler techniques that can flexibly bend their way into any kitchen in the world. Shiomomi, the salt-massaged method, is a perfect place to start.
“Shiomomi couldn’t be more basic or easier to make,” said Andoh. “All you need is salt and a little bit of muscle—determination.”
“Shio” means “salt,” while “momi” refers to the squeezing and massaging action that helps the salt draw out moisture from the vegetables, contributing to their own brine, and break down the cellular walls, immediately tenderizing even the toughest of cabbage. Part of the transformation comes from adding a bit of umami-rich kombu, which deepens the complexity of taste and texture.
The final step is to add pressure. You can place your vegetable mix in a Japanese pickle press, a gadget specialized for this purpose, or simply a sealed plastic bag under a stack of heavy books. This keeps oxygen out, and helps the brine transform the ingredients.
Andoh shared her recipe for a shiomomi cabbage and kombu salad, which she calls “impatient pickles,” adapted below. True to their name, the vibrant, crunchy pickles will be ready to enjoy in less than an hour.
Get to know the basic technique, and a world of tsukemono will begin to open up. Taste, test, and create your own variations, using what you have, and whatever seasonal produce is at peak flavor—radishes, fennel, cucumbers, eggplants. Try adding citrus zest, herbs, or hot peppers—the tastes of your own terroir. Soon, you’ll be making Japanese pickles for every meal.