Home » Ultimate Guide to Japanese Tsukemono Pickles
Made using either a salt or vinegar brine or a more involved fermentation process, Japanese tsukemono pickles can refer to a wide assortment of both vegetables and fruits, as well as seaweed, and exhibit a plethora of both flavors and colors.

In America, pickles are often eaten along with sandwiches, on burgers or as a garnish with other dishes. But in Japan, pickles are much more commonplace as the main component of a meal.

Made using either a salt or vinegar brine or a more involved fermentation process, Japanese pickles, referred to as tsukemono, are comprised of more than just pickled cucumbers. Tsukemono actually means “pickled foods” and so can refer to a wide assortment of both vegetables and fruits, as well as seaweed.

Because you can use different types of food to make tsukemono, they exhibit a plethora of both flavor and color. The bright, vibrant colors of tsukemono add contrast and an almost art-like quality to the other foods on the table, and the pungent aroma and tart flavors complement a wide variety of dishes.

People in Japan serve tsukemono as part of a traditional Japanese meal not just to suit your mouth’s palate, but also to add to the palette of color that many Japanese strive to exhibit when creating a complete meal. Some of the more popular tsukemono pickles you can find in Japan include:

  • Nukazuke (Rice Bran): Common pickles fermented in a brine that includes rice bran and other vegetables.
  • Shiozuke (Salt): Sliced vegetables that have been lightly salted.
  • Umeboshi (Japanese Plums): The ume fruit that has been pickled.
  • Shoyuzuke (Soy Sauce): Preserved pickles and vegetables, with different amounts of soy sauce serving as a base.

There are, of course, many other types, and they are commonly eaten as snacks, side dishes, or as a garnish on rice or other dishes.

Health Benefits of Tsukemono

All the fermented foods that fall under the tsukemono moniker provide some health benefits. Tsukemono contains enzymes that help to improve digestion. It also has probiotics that serve to improve the health of your skin. Additionally, tsukemono helps to improve stomach and kidney health and contains large amounts of B vitamins.

How to Make Tsukemono

While you can find tsukemono in Asian supermarkets, it is also very easy to make your own. Consider making these popular tsukemono dishes.

Gari

If you’ve ever eaten at a sushi restaurant, you’ve most likely seen gari. It’s the pickled ginger that always accompanies sushi and sashimi. It is a great palate cleanser, and you can even use the brine to flavor salads and regular vegetables.

To make your own gari, simply add thinly sliced ginger to a mixture of salt, sugar and rice vinegar, and allow it to marinate for at least a day, and up to a few weeks.

Umeboshi

Pickled Japanese ume plums are one of the most common types of tsukemono, and their flavor is also quite intense. Full of salt and acidity, they can taste quite harsh for the unaware, but if you like salty and sour flavors, you’ll definitely love umeboshi.

Making umeboshi is a bit of a process, but it’ll be worth it to try your own umeboshi as part of another Japanese dish when they’re ready. To start, keep them submerged underneath salt (you’ll need to place a weight on top). They will begin to exude a liquid as the salt leeches the water out of the fruit. After a month, remove the ume from the salt, but reserve the liquid, called umezu. Allow the ume to dry in the sun for 3-4 days, then brine them again in the umezu liquid. You can eat them right away, but they start to taste better after about 3 months.

You can serve the umeboshi with rice, as part of a maki roll, or, at the very least, it can be a great hangover cure in the morning!

Kyurizuke

This tsukemono uses Japanese cucumbers, which are long and firm and have very small seeds. The cucumbers are marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, salt, and a small amount of sugar for 1-2 weeks. Over the course of the brining, the cucumbers will shrink and become even firmer, delivering a very satisfying crunch when you bite into them. Kyurizuke exhibits a strong flavor of soy sauce, so pairs quite well with donburi rice bowls.

Uncover everything you need to know about doburi

Shibazuke

This tsukemono features an intriguing mixture of chopped eggplant and cucumber. It is salted and then brined with red shiso, resulting in a deep, vibrant purple hue. To make shibazuke, allow the ingredients to sit submerged in a mixture of salt and shiso until everything has turned completely purple-magenta. This should take about a month. But the wait is worth it as you’ll get to enjoy crisp and crunch tsukemono with a pungent herbal flavor.

Shibazuke pairs well with rice, and it’s also a great palate cleanser between different courses.

Takuan

Made with daikon radish, this flavorful tsukemono is first peeled then sliced and dried in the sun, then fermented in a brine called nukadoko, a rice bran-based fermenting solution. It should be allowed to ferment for a few weeks to a few months. You can also make it by mixing 3 pounds of sliced daikon with 2 cups of sugar and allowing it to sit 1-2 hours until you see a good amount of liquid in the bowl. Then add ¼ cup of sea salt and 3 tablespoons of rice vinegar and mix well. Cover or seal the mixture, and refrigerate for two weeks.

Serve takuan with plain rice or a donburi rice bowl, as part of a bento box, or in a maki roll. Or just enjoy it on its own!

Fukujinzuke

The Japanese name for these pickles means “lucky god pickles.” This refers to a Japanese myth about the seven gods of fortune, and so the recipe typically includes seven types of vegetables. Common ingredients include lotus root, daikon radish, eggplant, and cucumber.

When making fukujinzuke, you can use whatever vegetables you like. Simply slice or chop the vegetables into pieces or sticks. And then, allow them to marinate in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, and vinegar. Add the sugar to taste depending upon your desired level of sweetness. You should let the vegetable marinate for a least one night before consuming them. Some recipes also add shiso leaf to give the tsukemono a red tint.

This marinade gives the vegetables more of a sweet flavor than other types of tsukemono. It is delicious especiallly over curry rice or other somewhat spicy dishes that balance the sweet flavors of the tsukemono.

Enjoying Tsukemono

On their own, Japanese pickles (and many others) can often be enjoyed with jyunmai sake, a pure rice wine, as the flavors complement each other very well. If you are in the New York area visiting or live in Manhattan, you can try two kinds of special tsukemono for yourself at Wasan Brooklyn, along with many other dishes of traditional Japanese fare. You can also try making these two flavorful variations of tsukemono by following recipes below.

Tsukemono: Yuzu-Scented Salt Pickles

Recipe by Chef Kaku (Wasan Brooklyn)

Course Appetizer, Side Dish
Cuisine Japanese

Ingredients

  • 2 lbs Napa Cabbage
  • 2 Tbsp Salt
  • 1 Yuzu Fruit
  • 3 Red Chili Peppers
  • 2 Tbsp Rice Vinegar
  • 1.5 cups Water

Instructions

  1. Slice the Napa cabbage crosswise, ¼ inch thick. Wash and drain well by squeezing them.
  2. Grate zest of a yuzu fruit.
  3. Slice the red chili peppers.
  4. Gather all the ingredients and put in a large pot or container.
  5. Place a lid smaller than the pot or container directly on the food. You can make a lid with aluminum foil as well.
  6. Place a weight that weighs at least 5 lbs on top of the lid (water bottles, etc).
  7. Keep it in the fridge for at least a week.
  8. Enjoy! (Pickles last for about 2-3 weeks in the fridge.)

 

Tsukemono: Curry Vinegar Pickles

Recipe by Chef Kaku (Wasan Brooklyn)

Course Appetizer, Side Dish
Cuisine Japanese

Ingredients

  • 3 Celery Ribs
  • 1 cup Rice Vinegar
  • 1 cup Water
  • 1 cup Mirin
  • 3 Tbsp Soy Sauce (Preferably Koikuchi) *1
  • 3 Tbsp Sugar
  • 2” x 2” Kombu (Dried Kelp)
  • 2 Tbsp Curry Powder

Instructions

  1. Cut off the base and leaves of the celery and remove fibrous strings. Wash and cut into desired size.
  2. Drain celery and place in a plastic container.
  3. In a small pot, heat all of the ingredients except for curry powder over medium heat and bring to boil. Turn off the heat.

  4. Once not too hot, mix in curry powder.
  5. Pour the sauce over celery and keep it in the fridge for three days.
  6. Enjoy! (Pickles last for about 2-3 weeks in the fridge.)

Recipe Notes

*1 Learn the difference between "koikuchi (dark)" and "usukuchi (light)" soy sauces.

Do you know what ume is? Find out now!