Pickles were always one of my favourite foods. My grandmother made good pickles. She made sun-yellow sweet and sour mustard pickles we used to eat with fish, green green"hot dog" relish, mild "Bread and Butter" pickles, and pickled mixed vegetables like beets, cauliflower, and onions. She made them with vegetables she grew in her garden, following family recipes or recipes she cut from newspapers or magazines. We have Germanic roots, our family Palatines who left during the French purges of Protestants in the 18th Century for life on a new continent. One of the ways the settlers preserved the summer harvest was canning and bottling, and my grandmother was adept at both. This was before the modern supermarket even existed. Cooks had to make their own or do without, unless they could trade with neighbors. Food preservation was a matter of survival as well as a source of sustenance. Of course my grandmother was not one of the first wave of settlers but she kept the character and skills of her ancestors. Strong-minded, religious, energetic and helping her family all her life, she was and still is an inspiration to me as a person who survived much and made the best of it. And one of her talents was cooking. She was an excellent traditional cook, but not afraid to experiment. She loved trying new recipes and sharing them with her family.
In my 20's and 30's I came to like kosher dill pickles. I was away from home and those family pickle supplies. Baby dills were what was available in the supermarket and they were allowed on my diet, so I often ate them at night to give some flavour to other "allowed" veggies like plain carrots, celery and lettuce. The saltiness and tang picked up the bland veggies eaten without dip. I didn't have much imagination in those days I guess, because now that I know about balsamic vinegar, herbs, and spices I can make a nice little dressing with not much fat.
Those pickles were a lifesaver when I wanted something with crunch (that wasn't a potato chip). But they sure weren't my grandmother's pickles. There was something so much of fresh vegetable sunshine in Nannie's that no store pickle could match. They just weren't that satisfying, no matter how many I ate.
When I came to Japan one of the first things I noticed was the tastiness of the pickles. They usually came in tiny amounts, just a few small slices arranged artistically on their own small ceramic dish as part of a set meal including miso soup, rice, and maybe tempura or another main dish. They didn't have much of a crunch. What they did have was a delicate fermented, salty flavour that I loved. Of course some of the pickles were a bit stronger, with a bit of the aroma of old socks. But the ones I loved most were fresh, and light with a wonderful essence of fresh vegetable flavour that the dills I was used to couldn't deliver. What they had was that same quality of all good homemade pickles -- life.
Luckily one of my students has given me her recipe. This is a Japanese "housewife's" authentic recipe, and so it's precious as recipes go. Nothing is better in my opinion than the recipe of an expert who has spent most of her adult life perfecting her craft and pleasing her family. Think of the French peasant recipes that the great chefs collect and present in some of the best restaurants in the world. Think of great North American cooks collecting and showcasing great country classics. Think of Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Alice Waters, Jamie Oliver.
And I tested these pickles. They were hard to stop eating. I told myself to watch my sodium, but it didn't matter. They were great, with the satisfying hint of sesame and plum sake and the honest vegetable flavour of daikon, celery, cucumber and carrot. I used organic carrots, which made for great taste.
I made the pickles in only 1 hour, using a small pickle "machine" I bought at the supermarket. It's a clear hard plastic jar with a presser/plunger that acts as a weight on the pickles. I think they are widely available in Japan but if you don't have one you can use a non-metal bowl and a plate with a weight of some kind on top, maybe a can of something.
Here, with a flourish, and her own picture, is Mrs. M's wonderful and authentic recipe for Fresh Japanese Pickles. I hope you will try them. After all, since they are so easy and quick, once you get the ingredients in, you can make them and eat them for supper 1 hour later.
Mrs. M's Japanese-Style Fresh Pickles
About 7 thin cucumbers
20 g salt
200g Daikon radish
½ c vinegar
1 stalk of celery
¼ cup plum sake
1 medium carrot
1 Tb sesame oil
1. Cut all the vegetables to about the diameter of your little finger and about 4-5 cm in length.
2. Mix together well 20 g of salt and 1 cup of sugar.
3. Put the sliced vegetables in a pickle bucket (about 2-3 litres in size) and add all the seasonings, mixing well.
4. Cover the bucket with a lid that fits inside it and weight with a 2 kg weight. Pickle for about 1 hour.
5. Serve the pickles without rinsing. They will keep for about 3-4 days in the refrigerator. If you don't have a ceramic pickle jar, a glass jar will work.
This makes at least a couple of cups of pickles, so if you don't want that many you could try halving the recipe. They will be okay for the next day or two but are better right away.