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Tsukemono - Japanese Encyclopedia

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Tsukemono, or Japanese-style pickles, are a category of preserved condiments highly regarded across Japan. In this article, we introduce the various types of tsukemono, when they are eaten, and their status as a health food.

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Tsukemono, or pickles, made from vegetables preserved in either salt or vinegar, are foods that have numerous variations all around the world. Of course, tsukemono have been made for a long time in Japan too.

Tsukemono are still served today as an accompaniment to the main dish at Japanese restaurants specializing in Japanese traditional cuisine. Tsukemono pickles can also be used to enhance the flavors of other dishes and they play a supporting role in everyday meals. The more you know about them, the more you will be able to enjoy Japanese cuisine, so in this article, we have put together some basic information regarding Japanese pickles.

Varieties of Tsukemono

Tsukemono first appeared in the 10th century in Japan. There were descriptions about certain kinds of tsukemono found in a compilation of administrative rules called ”Engishiki”, or ”Procedures of the Engi Era”, which was created at the beginning of the tenth century.
According to this work, varieties of tsukemono and the best ways to make them were developed to store food in order to prevent famine in times of poor harvest, to preserve extra food during abundant harvests, and to improve the flavor of food. We can especially see these various developments in local districts, which have many different kinds of tsukemono depending on climate, custom or specialty food of the area. Tsukemono overall tend to be split into two broad categories, fermented or unfermented, but now we will take a look at the distinctive regional varieties of pickles that have been developed across Japan, based on flavoring and ingredients used.

1. Shiozuke - Salt Pickled
This is the most basic and the original way to make tsukemono and examples include shibazuke (chopped vegetables pickled in salt with red shiso leaves), suguki (pickled wakame seaweed) and umeboshi (pickled plums). Umeboshi, in particular, are frequently made at home, with people beginning to preserve them in June during the rainy season when these plums are ripe.

2. Nukazuke/Nukamisozuke - Pickles made in Brine and Fermented Rice Bran
This tsukemono is preserved in komenuka, a rice bran made from brown rice. An example is takuanzuke, or pickled daikon radish. They, like the shiozuke type, are often prepared in a specialized container called a nukazuke, where the items to be pickled are laid out on a bed of salted rice bran. Simple to make and made mainly using seasonal vegetables, these are most often part of a traditional Japanese breakfast or a bento lunch.

3. Asazuke (Ichiyazuke/Sokusekizuke) - Lightly Pickled Vegetables
These are tsukemono preserved in rice bran or salt for a short time, a popular version of which are called o-shinko. Many people like these pickles because the vegetables are preserved for a short time, meaning they still keep their original bright color and people can easily make them at home in a short time, or overnight. The preferred vegetables to use for this tsukemono are cucumber, eggplant, Japanese daikon radish, and Japanese cabbage.

4. Kasuzuke
Preserved in sake-kasu, or sake lees, these tsukemono are most commonly made near Japanese sake breweries. Nara is where you will find narazuke (Nara vegetables pickled in sake lees), which are sold by sake breweries, and other famous varieties of this tsukemono include wasabizuke (pickled Japanese horseradish) from Shizuoka prefecture and Moriguchizuke from Aichi prefecture.

5. Koujizuke
This is a regional variation on tsukemono that uses the particular food molds needed in making sake, soy sauce, and miso; particularly famous in this category are senmaizuke (pickled sliced radishes) made from Kyoto vegetables, Tohoku's regional dish sangohachitsuke (typically cucumber, carrot and daikon radish), and Tokyo's bettarazuke, (daikon radish pickled in salted rice yeast).

6. Suzuke
Homemade pickles like rakkyozuke (pickled leeks), or hariharizuke (dried and pickled strips of daikon radish) have long been considered health foods, but nowadays pickling at home has become sort of a trend. Homemade pickles involve preserving vegetables like cucumber, celery, peppers, and carrots in vinegar in a jar. They are becoming so popular that it is now possible to even purchase pre-made brine in some shops.

7. Shoyuzuke
The favorite of this variety is fukujinizuke, which goes best with curry rice. Made from seven different vegetables preserved in seasoned soy sauce, this salty-sweet tsukemono has been likened to the Shichifukujin, the seven ancient Japanese gods of good fortune. This tsukemono really helps whet your appetite.

There are other varieties of tsukemono as well, such as misozuke (foods preserved in miso), or karashizuke (foods preserved in karashi mustard). You can surely tell how passionate the Japanese are about their foods from the many different types of tsukemono and preservation techniques that have developed across the country.

When Do We Eat Tsukemono?

Tsukemono are served as a part of home-cooked meals, especially with traditional breakfasts and with dinner, and are often also included in Japanese-style bento lunches. As the main staple of the Japanese diet is rice, tsukemono has long been regarded as an important side dish vital to eat rice well and the have been eating them as a preserved food for centuries. Department stores and supermarkets carry a wide selection of tsukemono pickles as they are an extremely popular part of a daily Japanese diet.

Tsukemono in the Spotlight as a Health Food!

As tsukemono are made from raw and fermented vegetables, they contain many vitamins and minerals, making them popular as a health food. Umeboshi are often added to ochazuke (rice with a dried topping to which green tea is added), to help cure stomach problems. They are also often eaten as a snack to counter the bitterness of Japanese tea - you will find tsukemono in many different aspects of Japanese culture if you are aware of it. In fact, tsukemono are also a large part of Japanese izakaya culture, as the saltiness of tsukemono goes very well with Japanese sake.

Tsukemono have taken root as part of Japan’s unique food culture and history. Next time you visit a Japanese restaurant or supermarket, take a look at the tsukemono, the pickles that have shaped Japanese cuisine.

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