Whilst under Shogunate rule during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, trade and interaction with the outside world was tightly restricted, borders were sealed and Japan effectively became a closed country. A closed country that is, except for the port of Nagasaki on the western coast of Kyūshū, a bustling hub for the importing and exporting of produce, people and ideas. Much of the trade through Nagasaki was conducted with the Portuguese who were expanding their empire from Lisbon via the coasts of Africa, the Middle East and Goa. These Nanban- Southern Barbarians- brought with them the Christian church, the technology to make firearms, foods like peppers, chillies and vinegar, and new cooking techniques such as deep frying in breadcrumbs and batter, all of which were assimilated quickly by the locals. One of Portugal’s most popular methods of preserving fish for long journeys- escabeche, proved to be a huge success when tasted by the Japanese and has remained a favourite ever since. Literally meaning ‘pickled in the southern barbarian style’, nanbanzuke normally refers to whole fried fish or fillets soused in a vinegary sauce with vegetables, but we’ve enjoyed it many times with octopus- another staple of the travelling Europeans.
In our version of nanbanzuke we poach a whole octopus until tender, then marinade it with a selection of crunchy vegetables in a mixture of fish stock and rice vinegar with plenty of spicy red chilli and ginger to add some fieriness. Served at room temperature, nanbanzuke makes a wonderful addition to a picnic lunch, or when chilled it’s the perfect dish to serve in the summer when all you want to eat is something cooling, light and refreshing.
Tsukemono- preserved vegetables- pop up nearly every time food is consumed in Japan but can easily go unnoticed; they’re served with sushi to cleanse the palate in between flavours, as a snack with beers after a long day at work, used to top a bowl of rice and garnish dishes or as a course all of their own in a traditional kaiseki meal. These pickles help bring balance and harmony to a meal, they awaken the senses and excite the mouth preventing flavour fatigue and they add textures and colours that are otherwise missing from the foods that they accompany; samurai even used them for a quick energy boost during battle- and that alone is a good enough endorsement for me.
Unlike most Western pickles, those of Japan don’t rely purely on salt or vinegar to take care of the preservation of the main ingredient- tsukemono can be made with leftover lees from brewing sake, rice bran, mustard, soy sauce or as in this recipe, miso. These misozuke pickles are perhaps the most intensely savoury of all the tsukemono, garlic cloves are buried in a finger-licking mixture of miso, sake and mirin before being left for months to slowly transform. The miso helps temper the fiery flavour of the garlic which in turn mellows out the saltiness of the miso, resulting in two beautifully balanced condiments; a crunchy, umami-rich pickled garlic that’s a perfect accompaniment to meat or fish dishes, and a garlic enhanced nerimiso that’s just crying out to be stirred into a soup, spooned over hot steamed vegetables or smeared onto a crispy, lightly singed yaki onigiri. Oishii!
Boiled eggs feature in many dishes like oden and ramen, and they make a great snack or addition to a bento. Most often they are cooked until the yolks are solid, however we like ours to be barely set, especially with tiny quail eggs which you pop in your mouth whole and burst to release the rich gooey centre. By lightly pickling them in a sweet and sour soy liquor you can add a level of complexity to their whites and stain them an attractive glossy brown colour too. Shoyu tamago are a great replacement for use in any recipe which calls for boiled eggs, and their natural saltiness makes them a perfect accompaniment to drinks.
Hakusai no shiozuke is on the other end of the flavour spectrum, rather than being rich and gooey like the shoyu tamago it is crisp, spicy and fresh with lemon zest. Chinese cabbage is pressed and pickled for a short amount of time to provide a punchy accompaniment to meals and a perfect counterpoint to rich or fatty meats. This traditional recipe is a delicious introduction to salted pickles for those who’re a little wary of the tsukemono plate that comes with most Japanese meals.
One of the most enjoyable things about a Japanese meal is the sheer number of plates and bowls you get, little plates of pickles, bowls of dipping sauce, salads and small vegetable sides. In a restaurant you can think you’re ordering one basic dish and then end up with seven or eight little portions on your table per person. In this post we’ve got recipes for two such dishes; a punchy, strong pickled cucumber, powerfully seasoned with raw garlic, and a fresh salad of chikuwa fishcake mixed with spring onions and red peppers, topped with dried bonito shavings.