Japanese Pickles Right at Home: How to Make Tsukemono

If you want to have a uniquely Japanese experience at minimal cost, you might actually enjoy making “tsukemono”. It is a fairly basic form of pickles. The easiest, or so they say, is the salted Chinese cabbage or hakusai.

You will need:

  • 1 18L vat or bucket
  • 1 Chinese cabbage hakusai
  • Chopped red peppers
  • 160-200g salt
  • 1 drop lid with weight

Here are the Basic Steps:

1. Get Yourself a Vat. An 18 Liter One is Standard

This is the one “toh” vat. One “shoh”, roughly 1.8 liters, is the volume of the large sake bottle. 10 shoh makes 1 toh. Ideally you should have 4kg of Chinese cabbage, which is usually 2 or 3 large Chinese cabbages. For this amount, the vat needs to be at least 8 liters in volume.

2. You Tear Off the Tough Outermost Leaves and Quarter the Cabbages

Leave the quartered cabbages in the sun to dry for a few hours. (Spring is the season for Chinese cabbages, we do not recommend you dry them in harsh summer sunlight.) If they look a little shriveled, they are ready, so do not dry them out too much.

If you are using a traditional wooden vat, make sure to soak and salt the vat first. That kind of vat needs to be soaked and salted for at least a day before the pickling. This step is not necessary for a plastic vat. Pack your Chinese cabbages tightly into the vat and add some salt.

 Add Some Chopped Red Peppers

The most commonly used red peppers are called “taka no tsume” (hawk’s claws) and they are red peppers dried whole. You cut them up into small pieces and sprinkle them on the cabbages with the salt. 
You might also want to season with small squares of “kombu” seaweed to add a little umami. Some people like to pour sodium glutamate on the vegetables, but that is not widely recommended. The added sodium tends to make the leaves lose more moisture than they should.

Yuzu fruit.  Photo by Jpatokal on Wikimedia Commons.

The total amount of salt should be about 4 to 5 percent of the weight of the cabbage, which in this case 160g to 200g, which is quite a lot. You can wash off the salt before eating after the vegetables are sufficiently pickled. Some people also like to add slices of yuzu, a citrus fruit. This is entirely optional. Also, some people throw in slices of the whole fruit, while others add only the shavings of the peel for flavor.

Add More Cabbages in the Second Layer, Along With The Spices

5. After The Cabbages are Packed Into the Vat, You Can Place the Weight on Top

Traditionalists insist on covering the cabbages with the outer leaves you tore off earlier. Others cover it with Saran Wrap. Some do not use covering at all. You then drop in a lid of sorts, called “otoshibuta”, a “drop lid”. Then you put a weight on it. Ideally the weight should be about the same as the vegetables under it.

6. In About Five Days, the Cabbages Will Be Sufficiently Pickled

Some people say that you should exchange the weight for something half the weight after the second day. Others just keep using the same weight. It is not an exact science. Under the right climate conditions, the pickled Chinese cabbage should be good for about two weeks from the first day.

My mother and my grandmother used to make pickles at home all the time. We don’t see them being home made very much these days. We had a neighborhood lady help us make this. Needless to say, this is a project for late autumn to early winter. You do not do this when the weather gets too warm or the Chinese cabbage can spoil. You can make pickles during the summer time by using a portable jar that you can place inside a refrigerator. These jars have spring or screw mechanisms on the lid that can compress the vegetables without the help of weights. Once you learn to make them, you can use the same principle on a wide variety of vegetables.

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