When you visit Japan you probably think of sushi, samurai, geisha, or Hello Kitty. But do pickles ever come to mind? Japan is a country with many well-crafted, delicious pickled foods known as tsukemono. Because of Japans long winters and high humidity level, Japanese people have been pickling different kinds of foods in salt, miso paste, sake, soy sauce, or vinegar to preserve their food for centuries. The results are a wide variety of pickles that have become a principle part of Japanese cuisine.
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Kyuri is what pickles are to westerners: pickled cucumbers. This one is Japanese though and rather than pickling it whole, they slice the cucumber in bits making it easier to hold with chopsticks. Then the cucumbers are dipped in soy sauce, vinegar, and ginger. They are available all over Japan, the best are said to be from Kyoto.
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Umeboshi is plum pickled in sake and brine and is rich in umami taste. You are probably thinking, pickled fruit? Huh? But this sweet and salty plum is extremely popular all over Japan with adults and children. It is available in all kinds of quality and the best umeboshi is said to come from Wakayama. The plums are picked during the summer season then pickled and dried until ready. Umeboshi is a great condiment with rice, but the Japanese experiment with the flavor and have made it into tea and even into candy.
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Konbu is Japanese kelp that has a long and interesting process to it. First it is pulled from the sea, then dried, boiled, cut up, then dipped in sake, soy sauce, and mirin turning it into a tasty delight. You will love this seaweed dish that is hard to resist.
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Gari is a pickled ginger often served with sushi; so many westerners have probably seen this one before. Often served thin, it has a sweet and salty taste similar to umeboshi adding extra taste and health to your favorite sushi. While in Japan, try some if you haven't already.
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These are the more common pickles you can find in any prefecture in Japan. How about less common ones? Narazuke is native to Nara prefecture and will give any brave taster a new experience. Narazuke is simply a daikon radish pickled in sake for a long time. The sake gives it a sweeter flavor than the other pickles.
Pickles in Japan are not only a healthy side dish with dinner. They are also very sacred in Buddhism. In Japan’s Buddhist schools, the monks in training are required at one point to cleanse their bodies by eating only pickles and rice known as shojin ryori for weeks. This teaches them patience and respect for nature. Some temples in Japan will let tourists experience this training. They can see how Buddhist monks live and are served vegetarian meals including pickles.
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There is also some added nutrition to these pickles. Pickled food is very healthy for the stomach and can help aid digestion. People with sensitive stomachs will get to enjoy this when they visit Japan.
The Japanese take pickling very seriously, so your trip to Japan has to include tasting some of these. Grocery stores have them readily available and some people make their own homemade tsukemono. Who knows, maybe you will want to come back hungry for more?