Japan’s own first vinegar, umezu, came as a result of the ancients salt-pickling plums. Its impact on the cuisine is reflected in the word anbai, literally ‘salt-plum’, which means spot-on, or well-balanced, especially in the phrase anbai ga ii, ‘this is just right’.
If anyone ever says this to you about something you have made, you know at least three things: You done good. Your reviewer knows things, but might be rather pretentious. You need to make sure you can repeat that quality and balance again.
Japanese vinegar is almost wholly made from rice. This rice vinegar is called kome-su, anciently yone-zu. Kasu-su, made from sake lees, also exists but is to find. Kome-su is generally employed in the same way as Western-style vinegars, and especially in the dishes that bear its name, sunomono and as a purifier in cooking konsai root vegetables.
Genmai-su is brown rice vinegar. Sushizu for sushi, the sweet amazu, nibaizu, sanbaizu, Tosazu (Kochi Prefecture), umezu plum vinegar, and aozu are just some of the many varieties. Of late vinegar’s health-giving properties have been receiving increasing attention, and vinegar bars are popping up nationwide. Kurozu black vinegar is particularly popular as it is renowned as a cholesterol and fat buster.
The word originates from the Portuguese word for juice, pons, and this is the citrus-heavy, wonderful seasoning sauce, that is used for many vegetable dishes and as dipping sauce with certain nabemono hotpots. It is often paired with fugu blowfish, especially tessa blowfish sashimi. Yuzu or daidai citrus are the most common ingredients.
As an accompaniment to shirogohan white rice, pickles are present in most Japanese meals. They are also important sake-ate accompaniments to sake and beer.
Pickles are named for their prime ingredient, mostly vegetables, but also fish, the length of time pickled, and the pickling base, usually either miso, shio salt, su vinegar or nuka, a paste made of rice bran.
Nuka was once considered such an important part of household life that mothers would include it in their wedding dowry. Many years go when I joked to my own Japanese mother-in-law that she had forgotten to pass on the family nuka from her daughter to ours, her face turned ashen. Her resulting apology, and my apology for making her make an apology went on, I am not kidding, for hours. Nuka is clearly a serious business.
Nukazuke is the simple process of letting vegetables ‘sit’ in nuka bran. Kyuri cucumber and nasu eggplants are favorites. Nukamisozuke pickles, which have been kneaded into a mixture of miso and nuka, and left to mature sometimes through an entire winter, are clearly on the other end of the pickling scale..
Shiozuke is the process of pickling in salt, which happens overnight for asa-zuke lightly pickled vegetables, or for much longer, as for umeboshi pickled sour plums. Regional varieties and specialities abound. Kyoto is particularly renowned for its pickles, notably the dramatic and gorgeously purple-hued shibazuke, which is a combination of cucumber, eggplant and Japanese ginger pickled with akajiso red beefsteak plant.
Our favourite sake-ate is undoubtably tsukudani, which is created with vegetables, including sansai mountain vegetables, mushrooms, fish, shellfish, seaweed, or even, er, locusts. Katsushika-Shibamata in Tokyo is a tsukudani mecca. It was near here that the process originated, on the island of Tsukudajima in the Sumida River - tsukudani means Tsukuda-simmered - during the Edo period.
The small settlement of Kurama, just to the north of Kyoto, is also well known for tsukudani, most famously at Watanabe Ki-no-me-ni Honpo, which has been in the pickling trade for years. It specialises in shiitake mushrooms, fuki butterbur, konbu kelp, and the magnificent sansho prickly ash pepper.
If you are an inbound foodie to Kyoto, you should go. Inded, Kyoto is ‘pickles central’. The famous Uchida Tsukemono-ten has East and West branches in Nishiki Market, the latter marginally more popular than the first. Their Japanese website is here.