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Asian Pickles: Sweet, Sour, Salty, Cured, and Fermented Preserves from Korea, Japan, China, India, and Beyondby Karen Solomon
Synopses & Reviews
My dear fellow pickling aficionados, given the choice of any global cuisine for nearly any meal of the day, my tastes and preferences will always point East. My meals include stir-fries, broths zupped up by preserved lemon or ginger, noodles of every imaginable type, savory pancakes, rice porridge, and, of course, several bowls of good ol’ Nishiki or jasmine steamed rice. My favorite brunch item ever is served at Namu Gaji in San Francisco: two sous vide eggs bobbing in an outstanding bowl of homemade dashi, served alongside rice, fried oysters, and house-made kimchi. That soothing, salty, full-flavored and fermented feast is what I crave.
Despite the fact that my first two cookbooks are always shelved with the jam making and canning books, I am a fan of kitchen tinkering of all stripes. I live for drying, salting, curing, marinating, and brining. I am simply fascinated by the meditative practice of taking a foodstuff and transforming it with little more than salt or sugar, heat or moisture, time and magical bacteria.
Enter the humble pickle. Although I love all of my kitchen creations the way a mother hen loves her flock, pickles have truly captured my heart (and my stomach!). I swear, I could live on little more than hot rice and cold pickles, provided they are crisp, flavorful, pungent, and bright. It is only natural that, with so many Asian flavors spilling from my dinner bowl plus so many years of traveling to Asia and living there for a spell, my interest would turn to pickles of the Asian continent. Although many of these pickles have clear and immediate appeal—after all, who doesn’t love fresh vegetables dunked in a bath of vinegar and sugar?—it is the ones that have the most challenging flavors that I find the most pleasurable and rewarding. (I’m looking at you, pickled squid, nukazuke, and achar!) Naturally, after tinkering in my own kitchen trying my hand at pickling in rice bran, soy sauce, citrus juices, and fish sauce, I set out to buy a cookbook that could teach me deeply about Asian pickles. While I found a few great books on pickles of individual countries, I did not find the pan-Asian pickling experience in recipe form, equipped with descriptions of ingredients and unfamiliar techniques, that I had a yen for. It was clear that I was going to have to write it instead.
So how did I set about on this global task? By stuffing my brain and my mouth full of every flavor of each country represented as much as possible. I set out on an epic research project: relying not just on personal experience from my own travels, but also other cookbooks, countless blogs, San Francisco’s manifold authentic eateries and supermarkets, and friends, friend’s mothers, and grandmothers. I also pestered chefs and as many people working in the trenches as I could—literally strangers who were experts at the craft and working behind deli cases, ringing cash registers, and waiting tables—to share their techniques, ingredients, and tips. And, of course, as any cookbook author will tell you, there is also nothing that can replace good ol’ trial and error. The kitchen-as-laboratory is always the best place to learn hands on (and fail a lot! Yes!).
There were a few ground rules that I’ve put into place as I set out to write for a (primarily) North American audience. It is my rule of thumb to always provide DIY alternatives to special equipment. Believe me, I would not ask you to buy a single extra piece of kitchen gear that was not absolutely necessary. I am a big evangelist for the idea that you should be free and able to make pickles—particularly Asian pickles—with all of the pots and pans that are already in your cupboard.
This same idea holds true for ingredients. I solemnly swear never to ask you to track down difficult-to-source ingredients unless they will truly make or break a dish. And if there is a suitable substitute, I always make a note of it in the recipe. I’ve also tried, whenever possible, to ensure that there is a place to purchase obscure items online; if not, I haven’t included it in the recipes here, no matter how authentic it may be. (I’ve included those helpful URLs when applicable.) Authenticity is nothing if a pickle’s components aren’t accessible.
The other utilitarian aspect to all of this pickle passion is that I have included many ideas for how to use your pickles in daily cooking. What good is a fridge full of jars that never get opened? After all, the whole idea of pickles is that you have preserved food standing by to craft a fast, delicious, and (most often) healthy meal. While some of these recipes produce fiercely sour, spicy, or sweet morsels designed to be dainty little palate cleansers to complement a main dish, others bask in the spotlight when tossed with meat, seafood, or tofu in a wok or bubbled into a broth with noodles. Plenty of others make for a vegetable side dish that’s ready to serve by the large bowlful, or a meaningful sandwich accessory. I also include a recipe for congee (also commonly called jook), a satisfying rice porridge that’s the pickle’s best backdrop for a satisfying meal.
Some other notes before moving forward: You like canning, right? So do I. But you will notice that most of these recipes are not designed for long-term shelf storage. (Warning: Your refrigerator shelf may get crowded.) Fans of both fermented and brined pickles will not be disappointed; there are plenty of both represented here as is the custom of the Asian continent. One thing for certain: you will not be bored. There are many techniques and ingredients within that are likely new to you, and pickling beds and substrates that are, in large part, new frontiers for the Western fan of kosher dills and bread-‑and‑butter pickles.
If I’ve done my job correctly, you will become as enchanted with Asian pickles as I am. And your refrigerator will soon be busting at the seams with a crisp, colorful, and invigorating pickle feast.
This is not tangy-sweet, pink gari (as made in the recipe on page 19), the sushi roll’s faithful companion. It’s a different way to preserve fresh ginger and to vamp it up with the powerful color and flavor of red umezu (see page 191). On the Japanese table, a little pinch of this pickle is ubiquitous alongside stir-fried noodles, fried pork, or hearty beef and onion stews atop rice—in short, any heavy food that needs a little brightening and lightening from a pungent, presenceful pickle. A little goes a long way: this small jar is a mighty flavor giant that will last nearly indefinitely.
Red Pickled Ginger
• Time: about 1 week • Makes about 1 cup •
1 pound fresh ginger
1⁄4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1⁄2 to 3⁄4 cup red umezu, homemade (page 16) or store‑bought
Peel the ginger (use the edge of a spoon—it’s much easier) and chop it coarsely into 1-inch chunks. Working in batches, put the ginger in a food processor fitted with the metal blade (filling no more than halfway) and pulse until it’s about the size of lentils. Transfer the ginger to a large nonreactive bowl. Add the sugar and salt and mix thoroughly to combine, then cover with a drop lid (see page 29), and weight with a 1-pound weight. Allow the ginger to sit at least 4 hours (leaving it overnight is fine).
Preheat the oven to 200°F.
Drain the liquid from the ginger (there should be a good amount) and squeeze the ginger very firmly to get out as much liquid as possible. (Feel free to save this juice to use as a flavoring agent in other foods, or as a drink with more sugar and sparkling water.)
Transfer the ginger to a nonstick baking sheet or baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Spread it in a single layer and place in the oven; prop the door slightly open with a wooden spoon left in the door. Allow the ginger to dry for 2 to 3 hours, stirring every hour, until it’s dry to the touch.
Pack the ginger into a 1/2-pint jar and pour enough umezu over it to cover it completely. Cover, and allow it to sit on the countertop for about 3 hours, then top off with more umezu as necessary to keep the liquid level above the ginger. Let the ginger sit, covered, at room temperature for 24 hours, then move it to the refrigerator. The pickled ginger will be ready to eat in about a week, and, kept refrigerated with a tight lid, it will keep for at least a year.
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