Book Review: “Asian Pickles: Japan” by Karen Solomon (2014)

“Recipes for Japanese Sweet, Sour, Salty, Cured, and Fermented Tsukemono”

It has been a while since I reviewed a cookbook, though that does not mean I have stopped cooking. It only means that I have stopped reading and following recipes, a process that results from my kitchen ventures being almost entirely based on experimentation with something like an end-result in mind. Soups have been a major focus lately, since all of my dishes must please my mother-in-law, visiting direct from China.

Many contradictions went into my selecting this particular book on Japanese pickles and trying out some of Solomon’s recipes. For example, I love Asian food to death, but I have never enjoyed Japanese food, which I find to be far too exact and far too tiny in its portions. I am trying to eat smaller portions of all foods lately, yet pickles have that unique quality of being rather filling while at the same time containing virtually zero calories. I was not about to go fill my pantry with random Japanese ingredients that I would never use again or to spend weeks and months creating a nice pickle that would last me two days, yet I found in this book several simple and quick recipes that require only those ingredients we already had in our house. And because a good leafy pickle–even if it is Japanese–will always accentuate those healthy bowls of fried noodles my wife and her mother love to make, I simply had to give these recipes a whirl. Below are some of those results.

Cabage Pickles

I began with Solomon’s “Sitting-Fee Cabbage Pickles” which requires nothing more than salt, green cabbage, lemon juice, and sesame seeds. That sounded to me the easiest recipe in the book, and I believe that it proved to be just that. The wringing of the leaves was more work that I had anticipated, but the result was a tart cabbage not at all unlike a unique form of cole-slaw, and I thoroughly enjoyed the toasted sesame flavor as it mixed with the salty-sour cabbage. While I would certainly make a double-portion next time in order to help it last a bit longer in my house, I am certain to make this one again, specifically as an appetizer when we invite people over for Chinese.

Ginger Pickles

The next pickle I attempted was guri, or “Pickled Ginger.” Because my mother-law-eats ginger like an apple, this one was a no-brainer for me. Besides, I have always liked to nibble on some candied ginger after we do some hibachi in our home (on a pancake griddle, everyone), so this recipe calling for ginger, salt, rice wine, and sugar sounded to me like a wet, sour version of the same. And with that supposition I was exactly correct. The juice from this pickle is drinkable (if you need to wake up), though probably not recommended, and the flavor is exquisite. If you like potency, then this recipe is for you.

Mustard Green Pickles

A third recipe I tried was “Pickled Mustard Greens,” known to the Japanese as takanazuke. Though mustard greens are not a very big hit up here in the Midwest, I have learned since my time in China that I absolutely adore green and leafy vegetables, mustard greens included. We put all kinds of greens into soups, stir fry, fried noodles, etc., and recently we had even started purchasing pickled greens from the store at about $1.25 per tiny bag. When I saw this recipe, I was pretty stoked, for not only would it fulfill my family’s urges for the sour-spicy leafies, it would also save us some money in the process. While this version is far more bitter than the pickles we buy in the store, we are still highly pleased with results. It was with this third pickle, in fact, about which my mother-in-law said in Chinese: “When I return to China and people ask me what I did in America, I will tell them that I picked up new skills, skills like pickling.” You can’t go wrong with that.

I am not sure how many other recipes I will try from the book since I can’t get miso in anything less than by-the-pound, but of those that I have attempted, I have loved each one. I look forward the Solomon’s next installments of Asian Pickles, and I really hope she can turn out an Asian Pickles: China at some point in the future.

©2013 E.T.

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