Pickling was an important way of preserving vegetables and get the necessary vitamins also in winter. In the past, Japanese families did their own pickling, as some farmers still do. There are many ways of making tsukemono, but as none of these involves the use of distilled vinegar or acetic acid, we should in fact call them "preserved vegetables", rather than pickles in the Western sense.
Tsukemono can be fermented, for example when the process involves rice bran, sake lees or koji, but other types made with for example salt or soy sauce are not fermented.
Tsukemono form a constant part of every Japanese meal that contains rice - they are usually combined into a set with the rice and miso soup (ichiju issai, "one soup and one vegetable").
Tsukemono are also eaten with chazuke ("green tea over rice"), or just with a cup of green tea after the meal. Last but not least, they also make an excellent companion to sake.
On menus, such as of the kaiseki cuisine, tsukemono are called "o-)shinko."
Here are the major types of pickling:
- With salt (shiozuke). The easiest and most popular method.
- With soy sauce (shoyuzuke). Mirin is usually added to the soy sauce.
- With miso (misozuke). The miso is usually mixed with sake. This method is used for pickling whole vegetables, such as pumpkin.
- With vinegar (suzuke). Japanese vinegar is low in acidity, so like the other types, this is also more a preserved vegetable than a real pickle.
- With rice bran (nukazuke). Used with salt and chilies. The vegetables are buried in a bed of the rice bran (nukadoko) for a period of several months.
- With sake lees (kasuzuke). Sake lees are mixed with shochu, sugar and salt. This method of pickling takes a very long time.
- With koji (kojizuke). Koji is a mold that is cultivated on rice and that is responsible for the sugarification of the starch in the rice as well as the production of other enzymes.
Tsukemono can be bought in supermarkets and other food stores, but there are also specialist shops, often set up by the makers. Kyoto and Nara have many such tsukemono shops and tsukemono from these cities form a popular omiyage (present brought home by travelers).