In Japanese culture, it's customary to serve pickles, called tsukemono, alongside a meal, particularly with rice. The rise of popularity for the pickles coincides with the introduction of Buddhism in Japan. As more people adopted a vegetarian diet, they had to find ways of having vegetables on hand during the winter, when fresh vegetables were not an option.
Tsukemono can be made via a wide array of techniques, with vegetables and fruits fermented in salt, soy, miso, sake lees, and even beds of rice bran with live culture known as nukadoko. One of the most common tsukemono is made with sanbaizu, a combination of soy sauce, mirin and rice wine vinegar. Much like Western pickles, the salt and acid from the ingredients penetrate the vegetables, infusing them with flavor and firming the texture of the flesh.
This recipe for a simple sanbaizu comes from Erik Aplin, Chef de Cuisine at San Francisco's ICHI Sushi and NI Bar. He uses traditional vegetables, like daikon radish and the dainty white orbs known as Tokyo turnips. The vegetables get salted and pressed, expressing out some of their moisture, so they can absorb the sanbaizu brine. I spoke with Aplin about their tsukemono program.
Sea grapes are a kind of seaweed with tiny, succulent leaves that pop in the mouth like caviar. Check your seafood monger for availability.
Because rice wine vinegar is a lower-acid vinegar, this recipe is not suitable for canning.
- Cut the Tokyo turnips and radishes into quarters. Cut the daikon crosswise into 1/2" coins, and cut into quarters. Toss lightly with salt in a bowl, and then weight them by placing a clean plate or other flat kitchen object on top to remove excess liquid for approximately 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, mix the shoyu, mirin, and rice wine vinegar to make the sanbaizu brine.
- Wash the salt off the vegetables, and drain. Rinse the sea grapes. Combine the salted vegetables, sea grapes and sanbaizu brine.
- Marinate in the refrigerator at least 3 days prior to serving.