Every summer, a bounty of vegetables from my local green market inspires me to go back to nuka-zuke, an ancient Japanese pickling method based on fermented rice bran. Biting into crisp nuka-zuke carrot, radish, turnip, zucchini, cucumber, beet, eggplant or any other vegetable grown under the strong summer sun cools me off and makes me feel my body has absorbed the sun’s energy.
Pickled vegetables are ubiquitous throughout the world. You probably know that kimchi, sauerkraut, and brine-cured cucumbers and tomatoes are delicious. In New York, where I live, I have come to enjoy corned beef sandwiches – and what would one be without a great brine-cured pickle? These pickles, like nuka-zuke pickles, also have significant health benefits. They are all products of lactic acid fermentation and are wonderfully probiotic because of the bacteria involved in that process. These bacteria are proven to do many good things in our guts. They contribute to the growth of a healthful microbial community. They strengthen our immune system. They assist in good digestion. They help prevent constipation. They improve the body’s use of vitamins and minerals. They help to reduce blood cholesterol. And they decrease our sensitivity to allergens.
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I learned the nuka-zuke pickling ritual from my mother. One of the wedding gifts I received from her was a small batch of her nuka-zuke pickling base to use as a starter. At that time she had been nurturing it for 38 years in her kitchen. This year, my nuka-zuke pickling base that began its life with my mother’s gift celebrates 25 years of service in my kitchen. It has come a long way, in time and distance, from its origin.
The idea of pickling vegetables in rice bran, a byproduct of milling rice, arose at the beginning of the Edo period (1600-1868) in Japan. This is when eating polished white rice became popular in the big cities of Japan. Back then there was no scientific knowledge about rice bran’s excellent nutritional value. But increasingly, many citizens suffered from beriberi – lack of vitamin B1 – because of their reliance on white rice. Consuming vegetables pickled in a rice bran base, which adds vitamin B1, resolved the vitamin deficiency.
To make nuka-zukepickling base, which is called nuka-miso (only because it looks like miso; no miso is used), rice bran is lightly toasted and mixed with sea salt, water and dried akatogarashi red chile pepper. My mother also added kelp to improve the flavor and mustard powder, which has antiseptic properties. To let fermentation start in this new pickling base, we first pickle, for example, one cabbage in the prepared base for about a week or so. During this time enzymes breaks down the protein, carbohydrate and fat in the rice bran and lactic acid fermentation occurs. When we remove the cabbage (at this stage the cabbage is too salty to consume, and so is thrown away) from the pickling pot we will find remarkable biological activity in the pickling base. In one gram of nuka-miso pickling base we find over one hundred million good probiotic bacteria.
I can still vividly picture my mother pickling the vegetables, retrieving them from the pickling pot with a satisfied smile every time, taking care of the pickling base in the pot and serving the rinsed pickles sliced with razor sharp precision. I use all of the pickling tips that my mother taught me. Salt the vegetables before pickling. Toss and turn the pickling base one hundred times with my hands every day. This feeds oxygen to the bacteria. After some time using the pickling base it becomes wet from the water exuded from the vegetables. In such a case I add dried soybeans to absorb excess water. I always keep the pickling pot clean and hygienic. I add some salt if the pickling base became too sour.
Pickling vegetables in the nuka-miso base is lots of fun. I am dealing with living organisms, which though so very tiny react as a group like human beings. I know they do a very good job when I take care of their home — the pickling base — properly. I just pickled a couple of large carrots in the base very late last night before going to bed. I fetched them early this morning before they are too strongly flavored and become too salty. The very fresh, crisp carrots that were nurtured and massaged by my bacteria and enzymes overnight became tender, releasing a delightful fragrant aroma. I am always awed by the magical power of nature.
Some studies claim that the pickled vegetables have 2.5 to 10 times more vitamin B1 than fresh vegetables. The pickles also pick up other vitamins, minerals and lactic acid, from the base. But no matter how tasty and probiotic the nuka-zuke pickles are, we should control the size of the portion we consume, or risk taking in too much sodium.
When pickling time comes, I retrieve my nuka-zuke pickling base from the refrigerator where it has slept through the winter. I keep it in my large, deep blue, enameled pickling pot. When I open the lid of the cold pickling pot I think I can see trillions of my friendly bacteria waking up from their long sleep that began late last autumn at the end of the local fresh vegetable season. Hot, and sometimes humid, summer weather is ideal for these bacteria to become active again and do their wonderful work.
Here is the recipe for you to start your nuka-zuke pickling base. When you make it please think of the future of your pickling base. You could be handing down this probiotic-rich base to your children and those of succeeding generations.
Nuka-Zuke Pickling Base
2 pounds rice bran
6 ounce sea salt
About 6 cups filtered water or mineral water
3 Japanese akatogarashi red chile peppers or 1 tablespoon Italian chile pepper flakes
5-inch long kombu (kelp), cut into halves
1 cup dried soybeans
½ cup mustard powder
One small cabbage
One large enameled or plastic pickling pot (about 5-quart capacity) with a lid
- In a large skillet over low heat, toast the rice bran in several batches until fragrant. In a large pot, add the salt and water and bring it to a gentle simmer. Stir the pot to dissolve the salt. Cool the salt water.
- In the pickling pot, add the rice bran. Add the cooled salt water in three batches. The mixture should have a texture and consistency similar to miso and should not be watery. Add the kelp, soybeans and mustard powder.
- Cut the cabbage into four wedges. Sprinkle some salt over the wedges and bury each of them in the pickling base. Twice every day — in the morning and in the evening — remove, set aside the cabbage and toss and turn the pickling base with your hand. Return the set-aside cabbage in the pickling base.
- Continue the process for seven days, at which time your nose will begin to sense a fragrant lactic acid aroma. When this happens, your pickling base is ready for use. If this does not occur after seven days, continue the same process for another three days. Remove the cabbage and dispose of it.
I encourage you to experiment with all varieties of vegetables pickled for various lengths of time. You may find that some small vegetables such as radishes cut in half or larger vegetables cut into much smaller pieces are deliciously pickled after only two hours or so in the base. Because of this, you don’t need to do long-range planning to enjoy these wonderful treats from nature.
Prep Time: 30 minutes plus 7 to 10 days for making and completing the pickling base
Cook Time: Pickling time for vegetables in the completed pickling base is about 2 hours in summer
Yield: 4 to 6 servings, if, for example, you pickle 4 cucumbers, 4 radishes and 1 medium carrot
- Thoroughly rinse the vegetables that you wish to pickle, and wipe them with paper towel. Place the vegetables in a bowl, sprinkle with some sea salt and rub the vegetables with the salt.
- Dig several holes in the pickling base and drop the vegetables into the depressions, noting how many went in so that you don’t miss any when you dig them out. Over-pickled vegetables are too salty to consume. Cover the vegetables completely with the pickling base.
- During the heat of summer, the vegetables pickle in 4-5 hours. You may cut the vegetables into smaller pieces to hasten the pickling process.
Main photo: Nuka-zuke pickled vegetables. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo