Pickles to Please Your Palate
By “Awake!” correspondent in Japan
PICKLES! When you hear “pickles,” what does your mind’s eye see? If you live in Japan, you will visualize a long, yellowed radish sliced and served as dessert! If you live in America, you can imagine what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he wrote: “On a hot day in Virginia, I know of nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle, brought up troutlike from the sparkling depths of that aromatic jar below stairs in Aunt Sally’s cellar.”
Most of us think of pickling in regard to fruits and vegetables. In the Yukon in Canada, however, you would think of reindeer, moose, elk or bear pickled in vinegar and white wine. Hawaiians pickle salmon in lemon juice with onions and tomato. After one and a half hours in the refrigerator, it is ready to eat. The Japanese pickle raw mackerel in vinegar and salt for three hours, then serve it with a sauce of grated radish and ginger, vinegar and soy sauce. Is your mouth watering?
The history of pickles can be traced to the Persians. So, let’s see how the modern-day Iranians prepare pickles. To make these yourself, you will need six white turnips, two small beets, two and a half cups (.7 L) of water, one and a half cups (.4 L) of white vinegar, two and a half teaspoons (12 ml) of salt and four cloves of garlic. Cut each turnip in finger-length strips or slice, and soak in water overnight. Rinse and drain. Place in a glass jar with the beets and the remaining ingredients and cover. Let stand at room temperature for three days. Serve chilled. (In place of the turnips, you may use cauliflower, celery, carrots or eggplant that is blanched, peeled and sliced.) You can see that these pickles would be not only delicious to eat, but pretty to look at, as the beets will dye the turnips pink. Using the same recipe, you may make Indian-style pickles by adding one teaspoon (5 ml) of crushed mustard seed, one tablespoon (15 ml) of curry powder, one or two teaspoons (5 or 10 ml) of chili powder, a pinch of powdered ginger and one half cup (.1 L) of brown sugar.
Perhaps the most well known of all of Japan’s pickles is the umeboshi, or pickled plum. Pickled plums are served for breakfast with hot rice and miso soup.
Would you like to make such a pickle? Then take four kg (nine lbs.) of green plums with no imperfections, and 800 gm (28 ozs.) of salt and 400 gm (14 ozs.) of ripened red beefsteak mushroom or fungus plant leaves. In Japan, we start making umeboshi in June. Start by soaking the plums overnight in water. Strain off the water and add the salt. Put the plums into an earthenware or a glass crock, cover with a lid and put on a fairly light weight. The juice will gradually come up to the lid. In July, the beefsteak plant leaves are ready. Rub salt into them with your hands to remove the first juice from the leaves. Next, put the leaves into the juice with the plums and squeeze. Let the leaves remain on top of the plums about one month, or until the red color from the leaves penetrates to the middle of the plum. Next, take out the plums and leaves and dry them in the sun for three days. Each night, return the plums to the juice. The purpose of sun drying is to improve the color of the pickles. After three days, put the plums back into the juice for 10 more days, after which you can remove most of the juice. The leftover juice may be used to pickle turnips, radishes or ginger, if you like.
In America, the most popular pickled vegetable is no doubt the cucumber. There are hundreds of recipes for making pleasing pickles from cucumbers. Many families have their own special recipe handed down from generation to generation.
However, here is a simple recipe that could be adapted for use anywhere in the world. Using only small, fresh, hard cucumbers, soak them in cold water overnight, and dry them. Place the cucumbers in a wooden barrel or a large earthenware or glass jar. Place a few leaves of black currants and cherries, mustard seeds and dill sprigs in with the cucumbers. Using a ratio of about four ounces (113 g) of sea salt to five quarts (4.7 L) of water, boil enough water to cover the cucumbers and wooden board that serves as a lid.
After the water has cooled, pour it over the cucumbers. Cover them first with cheesecloth, then with the wooden board and top this with a clean stone. Keep the container in a warm place for about one week, then move to a cooler place. Pickles are ready in about 10 days to two weeks. Remove and wash the stone and covers every week or so, cleaning the top of the water of foam and mildew.
What makes a taste-pleasing pickle? Well, that depends on you. The adding and taking away of herbs and spices is left up to you to a large extent. However, the ratio of salt and vinegar to the amount of vegetables as stated in the recipe should be followed exactly for good results.
What kind of salt should you use? Do not use table salt in your pickles, as it causes cloudy pickling liquid and the iodine in iodized salt darkens pickles. Use pickling salt or pure granulated salt only.
It is best to use a high-grade cider or white vinegar of 4 to 6 percent acidity. Never reduce the vinegar called for in a recipe. If you think it is too tart, add more sugar. Alum is often added to pickles to keep them crisp, but grape leaves will serve the same purpose.
Needless to say, the more cut surface there is on your vegetables, the quicker the flavor will spread. And remember, seasonings should be used with a frugal hand. It is better to err on the skimpy side since it is impossible to subtract!
In some countries people eat pickles before a meal to whet the appetite and bring out the digestive juices. The Japanese say that pickles are a wonderful aid to digestion and should be enjoyed at the end of every meal, including breakfast. But, no matter when or why they are served, nearly everyone the world over has a natural taste for something tangy, pungent, sour and spicy.