The Pickle Pot

by Elizabeth Andoh

I first tried my hand at making nuka-zuke nearly 30 years ago. My landlady, Mrs. Ohta, who had herself been tutored in the fine art of pickle-making by her mother, grandmother, and generations of Japanese women before her, patiently showed me the basics: how to dry-roast the nuka rice bran until aromatic, mix it in a large ceramic crock with coarse sea salt, scraps of kelp left over from making dashi stock, and broken bits of hoshi shiitake, collected from the bottom of the tea canister in which she stored her dried mushrooms. That evening I was invited to bring my pot to her kitchen where we toasted the start of my pickling career. After taking a sip of beer from my glass, I was instructed to pour the rest of it into the crock. Immediately, the powdery bran mixture began to bubble and hiss, as the beer hops brought the nuka miso pickling paste to life.

With great ceremony, my landlady then added some of her mature nuka miso to my fledgling batch. Perhaps it is because Japanese girls are discouraged from playing with mud that as grown women they take such delight in the daily ritual of turning the nuka paste. Clearly Mrs. Ohta relished the exercise: dig, flip, and knead. Scoop and stir.

Within a few days, I developed a satisfying rhythm of my own (dig, flip, squeeze and knead; scoop, stir, and scrape) and I was rewarded with a heady aroma upon removing the lid to my crock. After a week of nurturing my nuka paste with buried radishes beyond their prime (retrieved and tossed in the garbage the following day), I was ready to try a cucumber that might actually accompany my morning bowl of rice and miso soup. My very first attempt was much too salty and harsh. In fact, it took nearly a month of constant monitoring and adjustment before I was able to produce a reasonably tasty nuka-zuke pickle. Decades later, I'm still trying to emulate my sister-in-law Nobuko's, turnips: pearly white, crisp yet tender, and mellow-sweet, she sprinkles freshly toasted sesame seeds over them just before serving.

Over the years, I have received lots of advice, and occasional transfusions of seasoned nuka paste, from many experts: neighbors, shop-keepers, and relatives. Indeed, cultivating nuka miso has provided me with special access to the lives of many Japanese women, pickle-bonding across an otherwise difficult cultural divide.

In Japan, a pickle crock evokes a homey, comforting image, the way Mom's apple pie does in America. Like moist, heavy sand at the seashore, "playing" with nuka miso can be therapeutic. Japanese women dig, flip, and knead away frustration; they scoop, and stir up hope; then scrape away disappointment. In contrast to this, the expression "building sand castles" is used in English, to describe futile attempts at finding happiness: like the elaborate architectural structures that are coaxed out of wet sand, fragile dreams of a better life can be washed away with a single wave.

As food journalist and lecturer, I travel frequently. Even when my daughter, Rena, was young I spent a lot of time "on the road." When she was an infant, I could easily strap her to my back, Japanese ombu-style. Her toddler years presented a greater challenge, and once she began formal schooling, I could no longer take her with me on most trips. We found a caring woman in our neighborhood whose teenaged daughter, Saeko, doted on Rena. Like a pampered family pet, my nuka paste would go with Rena to Saeko's house. Indeed, Mrs. Ozawa became one of my most valued pickle pot counselors.

Then, one day, my husband came home with news of a transfer. We were to move to New York, where I had been born and raised. As we prepared to leave Tokyo, I had many difficult decisions to make about what to pack, and what to leave behind. Reluctantly, I admitted that my pickle pot would probably not travel well, and I started the search for a suitable adoptive home. Interestingly, my next door neighbor, a career woman with no children, showed interest in caring for both my geraniums and pickling paste. Indeed, she became quite attached to both, and I felt uncomfortable reclaiming them when I returned to Tokyo.

So I began to think about starting a new batch of nuka miso. Not only could I enjoy homemade pickles (somehow, the commercially made ones never taste quite right), but with Rena grown and living in America, I imagined that pickling might help sooth that "empty-nest" feeling. My usually supportive husband, however, wanted nothing to do with this project. He reminded me of the unpleasant tiff that had ensued when, before Rena was born, I had once left my pickle pot in his care. He had forgotten to turn the nuka miso daily and by the time I returned to Tokyo, foul molds had taken up residence in my precious pot. I angrily accused him of sloth, gross negligence, and callousness! With hindsight, I suspect that its probably a "gender thing." Pickling in general, and making nuka-zuke in particular, is thought to be women's work.

Finally, I found the excuse I was looking for to jump-start my pickling career. Rena called to say she would be coming to Tokyo for a visit and I wanted to surprise her with a nostalgic taste of the past. After appealing to his sentimental nature (an effective tactic with Japanese men), my husband acquiesced. A pickle pot could sit in our kitchen again if I promised I would find a "baby-sitter" for it during my frequent absences.

My friend, Holly, agreed. Of course, she gets to eat the pickles my pot produces in my absence, and some of my nuka miso as a starter for her own pot, should she decide to embark upon such a project for herself. Making, and maintaining, good nuka paste requires a great deal of patience, and attention. At least once a day the paste needs to be stirred and mixed by hand. Moisture levels need to be adjusted periodically -- some vegetables, such as daikon radish or cabbages, can water down the pickling medium, while other vegetables, such as eggplants, soak up liquid rapidly. Because the nuka paste contains live bacillus, it must be carefully monitored for unwanted molds. Seasoning needs frequent adjustment: peeled cloves of garlic or knobs of ginger-root provide complexity of flavor; dried red togarashi peppers add fire, and discourage bugs; crushed egg shells (from eggs washed well before being cracked open for other uses) add calcium and will mellow any sharp or bitter tastes.

1997 will be remembered by many, I suspect, as the Year of the Tamagochi. I wonder... If trendy Japanese teenagers are willing, even eager, to lavish attention on electronic pets, what might lure them to take up the crusade of the pickle pot?

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(originally published in the Daily Yomiuri, July 1997. Copyright (c) Elizabeth Andoh. All rights reserved.) Published with permission.
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