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Crunchy with a puckeringly sour & sweet-tart flavor, Tsukemono are the Japanese pickles served alongside rice and miso soup. Find out more about the different types of Tsukemono you may encounter in a Japanese meal.
Tsukemono (漬物), or Japanese pickles, are preserved vegetables that are pickled in salt, salt brine, or rice bran. They come in great varieties and forms, and you can often find one or two varieties of tsukemono being served in an Ichiju Sansai 一汁三菜 meal or as an accompaniment to sushi or as a garnish to a yoshoku (Japanese-western cuisine) dish like Japanese curry.
Sometimes it can be easy to overlook the roles of these pickles, especially if you’re not familiar with Japanese food culture. Nevertheless, tsukemono are in fact small yet mighty when comes to its attributions. They are an essential player in Japanese cuisine, lending a range of colors, textures, and flavors to balance the main meal and to render harmony. These pickles refresh the palate and provide refreshment to counter the heaviness of rich foods. Which is why they are also referred to as konomono (Kou no mono, 香の物) or “fragrant things”. Another quality they’re also known for is its many nutrients such as vitamins, antioxidant and probiotic that are beneficial to the digestive health.
As we learn its significance in Japanese cuisine, let us take a closer look at the different types of tsukemono today. This post will guide you in your understanding of Japanese pickles. While the realm of tsukemono is almost inexhaustible – with homestyle versions to regional and local specialties, here’s what you can commonly find at many well-known Japanese dishes. Interested to try the pickles or make them at home? Take a trip to your local Japanese grocery store and you’ll most likely find the popular ones there.
Most Popular Types of Tsukemono
Below are the popular tsukemono commonly paired with rice, or served in an Ichiju Sansai setting:
1. Umeboshi 梅干し
Umeboshi are pickled Japanese ume (梅), which are a cross between an apricot and a plum, but often referred to as pickled plum. Round, wrinkled with a characteristically dark pink or beige, they are made by drying, then pickling in salt under a weight. Traditionally, umeboshi are packed in salt with purple shiso leaves, which dyes them a dark pinkish purple shade. They have a distinctive sour and sweet flavor, and can be exceptionally salty. For those who prefer a sweeter (not sour) umeboshi, there are honey-packed umeboshi, which usually are beige in color.
You may have seen pictures of Japanese lunch boxes with an umeboshi in the center of rice, which is called Hinomaru Bento (日の丸弁当) – the reddish umeboshi resembling the Japanese flag. The sour plums can also be found in onigiri, usually with their seeds removed for easy eating.
Another version you can find is koume, which is like a younger sibling of umeboshi. Koume (小梅), literally “little plums” are green unripe plums that are much smaller than umeboshi, and undergo a similar preparation of salt packing. They are crunchy, unlike umeboshi.
2. Daikon Pickles – Takuan 沢庵
Bright yellow in color, Takuan are daikon that undergoes drying then pickled in rice bran (米糠). Traditionally, the yellow hue is from the dried gardenia fruit (クチナシ) that’s in the pickling mixture; however, most likely your supermarket Takuan is artificially colored. Takuan is also enjoyed in Korean cuisine, known as Danmuji.
Iburigakko is another type of Takuan from Akita prefecture in northern Japan, where the daikon is smoked instead of dried. Greyish yellow in color, it’s more crunchy than Takuan with a distinctive smoky aftertaste.
Bettara Zuke べったら漬け
Bettara Zuke are sweet daikon pickles hailed from Tokyo, which are packed with salt, sugar, rice, and rice koji.
3. Shibazuke 柴漬け
Shibazuke hails from Kyoto and is a variety of summer vegetables such as eggplant, cucumbers, myoga, shiso leaves pickled together in umezu (Japanese plum vinegar). It is a common feature in Kyoto cuisine, but due to its popularity, they are enjoyed throughout Japan. One of the favorites ways of enjoying this pickle is with Ochazuke – steamed rice with tea poured over the rice.
4. Asazuke 浅漬け
Asazuke refers to both the pickles and the pickling method. Literally “shallow-pickling,” the vegetables are pickled for a short time (usually in the refrigerator) to preserve the crunchy texture. They are a favorite of home cooks as they are quick, easy and don’t require any equipment to make. The most common vegetables used for Asazuke are daikon, Napa cabbage, cucumbers and eggplant.
You can make Asazuke by using a premade liquid solution, called Asazuke no Moto (浅漬けの素) or follow the recipes below by using salt with the recipes below:
5. Nukazuke 糠漬け
Nukazuke also refers to both the pickles and the pickling method. The vegetables are preserved in a brown pungent mash of roasted rice bran (Nuka 糠), salt, and kombu, which needs to be turned by hand every day. The pickling can last from a few hours to several months, resulting in a crispy, salty, and slightly yeasty pickles. Nukazuke are rich in lactobacillus, and said to be beneficial for the intestinal flora.
Popular vegetables for nukazuke are daikon (Takuan たくあん), carrot, cucumbers, cabbage, turnips. However, some people have pickled sliced avocados, cherry tomatoes, and persimmons.
Other Types of Tsukemono
Beyond rice and Ichiju Sansai setting, you can find tsukemono being served in another style of Japanese dishes. Here are a few that you may have seen in different contexts:
6. Fukujinzuke 福神漬け
Not quite in the Tsukemono category despite its name Zuke (漬け = to pickle), Fukujinzuke is lightly brined in a sweet soy sauce and does not undergo fermentation. The crunchy condiment is more like a chunky chutney, served with Japanese curry. It features seven vegetables, its name inspired by the Seven Lucky Gods (七福神).
7. Rakkyo らっきょう
A pickle of the bulb of Chinese onions, Rakkyo can be pickled in salt, soy sauce, or sweet vinegar. It resembles a garlic clove but with a taste similar to shallots. You can also find it served alongside Japanese curry.
8. Ginger Pickles – Shinshoga 新生姜
Ginger pickles come in a variety of forms and served in different settings, which you may be familiar with!
Shinshoga is young pickled ginger dried that is soaked in a sweet vinegar brine. It can have a blush pink color when made from young ginger or artificially colored, or beige if made by regular ginger.
Thinly sliced Shinshoga called Gari (ガリ) is a must accompaniment that goes with sushi. The spicy and sweet-tart palate cleanser removes the fishy aftertaste, hence its presence with sushi. The name Gari is said to be from the onomatopoeia of the crunching noise or the sound of a knife thinly slicing the Gari.
Beni Shoga 紅生姜
The ruby red julienned pickles on top of Gyudon or Yakisoba are Beni Shoga 紅生姜. Similar to Gari, Beni Shoga has a darker pink shade due to its brine in Umezu (梅酢). Its tart and crunchy texture goes well with meaty or oily dishes, and adds a pop of color. While usually a condiment to dishes, it can also be battered and deep-fried as tempura.
Just like any ancient preservation method seen across the world, Tsukemono has been a way of Japanese people consumed nutrients and sodium when food was scarce. With the traditional and laborious methods becoming rare, it can be a challenge to find quality mass-produced tsukemono at the grocery stores these days. Regrettably, most of the store brands are made with artificial starters and other additives for quick fermentation. That said, we can still preserve the ancient art of lacto-fermentation by making tsukemono from scratch at home. Be it a quick pickling or a more elaborate fermentation, it’d be a worth-while project to embark on!
Kayoko happily grew up in the urban jungle of Tokyo and in the middle of nowhere East Coast, U.S. After a brief stint as a gelato scooper and a slightly longer employment at an IT company, she decided to drop her cushy job to enroll in culinary school. Kayoko resides in Tokyo with her husband, a penguin pillow, and many half-dead plants. More from Kayoko →