Pickles are to Japan what cheese is to France. Each region uses local produce and traditional processes of fermentation to produce distinct varieties of pickles that are closely identified
with the area where they are made.
To eat Japanese pickles is to eat a piece of Japan–its soil, climate, history, andculture—with all the specificity that comes from local knowledge. Like cheese and wine, pickles are a “cultured” product.
Rice, soup, and pickles are the three basic elements in a classic Japanese meal. Many pickles are traditionally made at home and are the test of a good cook, particularly in rural areas.
Families will keep the same rice bran pickling “bed” alive for generations, passing it, as well as their pickling utensils and techniques, through the family.
Extending the abundance of summer into the harsh winter, pickling locks the fragance of the season into a delicious package that can be savored all year long.
But the term pickle does not quite capture the meaning of the Japanese term tsukemono, which refers more broadly to steeping food–for as little as an hour or as long as several years–to alter its texture and flavor.
Bracken, radish, turnip, cabbage, eggplant, cucumber, onion, mushroom, plum, cherry blossom, chrysanthemum flower, kelp, and wasabi are traditionally treated with salt, vinegar, rice bran, sake lees, koji (a mold), miso, and shoyu.
The result is a stunning array of colors, textures, shapes, and flavors that offers an intense contrast to the plain rice with which pickles are generally eaten and a rich source of vitamins,
particularly during the winter when fresh vegetables were once in short supply.