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April 19, 2010

Get in a pickle with the essential Japanese accompaniment

By Stuart Turner

Japanese food is an explosion of flavours colours and textures and pickled fruit and vegetables are an essential part of the culinary experience.

Tsukemono (pickled things) are a far cry from onions or red cabbage and include vegetables, fruits and condiments that are served as an accompaniment, a garnish and even a dish in their own right in Japanese homes and restaurants. The tradition dates back to the days before refrigeration when pickling was an important way to preserve food.

Unlike western pickles, the Japanese don’t often use vinegar as the main preservative, preferring salt or brine which gives the pickles a unique taste and maintains a crunchy texture. There are hundreds of different varieties and combinations of tsukemono, each with a unique flavour which is enhanced by using other popular ingredients in the pickling process such as mirin, sake, soy sauce or miso paste. Most pickles are very flexible in terms of how they can be eaten and what with and add an interesting flavour and texture dimension to different dishes, from sushi to noodles to Japanese curry.

Delicate slices of pickled gari ginger are an essential accompaniment to sushi. They are eaten with the sushi rolls as a garnish or between sushi with different fillings or courses of a meal as a tangy palate cleanser. Ginger is also pickled in thin, red strips known as Beni Shoga which is served as a garnish on hot dishes such as meat dishes and yakisoba (fried noodles).

Daikon radish, known as Takuan is another popular pickled vegetable with a bright yellow colour and sweet, crunchy taste that is very versatile. It is served grated with pork steaks covered in panko breadcrumbs or finely sliced with mixed leaves in salads. It can also be finely sliced and added to sushi or used to flavour stews or hot dishes and is often served at the end of a meal as it is believed to aid digestion.

In Japan, fruit is also pickled and served with savoury dishes. Umeboshi is made from Ume fruits which are described as plums but are more similar in colour and texture to apricots. They have a sour taste and are often stuffed inside onigiri rice balls for a quick breakfast or a lunchtime snack and believed to have numerous health benefits including beating fatigue.

One of the best ways to sample Japanese pickles is to try a mixed selection which are ready available and offer a range of flavours. Fukujinzuke is a selection of seven different vegetables which can be served as a snack or side dish, used to fill onigiri rice balls or to garnish maki sushi. Another great pickle for sushi lovers is Shiba Zuke which is a mix of aubergine, cucumber and ginger.

The great thing about Japanese pickles is you can eat them with almost everything – stews, rice, sushi or even as a quick snack. Whatever your taste there will be a flavour and a texture out there you are bound to love which is a great reason to try something new and unique with your food.


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