Two months ago, when we happened to have some extra Japanese cucumbers and carrots in the fridge, I thought I’d take advantage of T’s nap time to try out this quick Japanese pickle recipe. CH’s mom—who’d hung up her apron decades ago, long before I’d first met CH, and adamantly declines to cook—happened to be spending the day with T and offered to help. It was to be the first time in over a decade of marriage that I got the chance to cook alongside my mother-in-law.
Fleeting as it was (because this is a seriously quick pickle), I cherish the moment. Mom cut each vegetable with such care, precision and skill—marks of a true master in the kitchen, in my book—as we casually chatted. And she took great pride in ensuring that every beautifully faceted chunk was of a similar size (the batons in the picture above were from a later batch I prepared for a Mandarin pancake and pressed duck wrap) because she knew it was vital to the taste and look of the finished pickle. With smaller or irregular pieces of vegetable, the balance between tart pickling liquid and the natural sweetness of each vegetable is thrown off kilter. Smaller chunks tend to get overcooked and soft too quickly when you blanch them, compromising on the texture so vital to this side dish. “Add a fresh red chilli,” she suggested. “It’ll give colour and flavour to the pickle.”
That morning, I caught a rare glimpse of the kitchen goddess who first schooled CH’s palate in action. She was a pleasure to watch and learn from. Mom was unstinting in her attention to detail. It did not matter how simple, humble or secondary the dish was. She sought to make it perfect in every conceivable way. This recipe will always remind me of our brief, and hitherto only, culinary duet.
I’ve always appreciated the way the Japanese introduce pickles (tsukemono) into their meals. For one, they tend to veer away from overpowering acidity or savouriness, and favour a hint of sweet umami in their pickles. I love that they often manage to capture a sense of seasonality in their pickles both in terms of flavour and aesthetics. And the sheer variety of Japanese pickles, each often precisely calibrated to magnify the unique appeal of the sum of its parts, continues to astonish me.
However, I’ve never planned far ahead enough to pull off a proper pickle of any kind. This is why I like that these pikurusu are meant to be enjoyed pretty much immediately. They don’t keep for long. While they aren’t the classic Japanese pickles that you would get at a sushi or kaiseki restaurant, they are delicious. Sweet and sour without slapping you in the face with acidity, the pickled vegetables retain their crunch and fresh taste, making them quite habit forming.
Having said that, I must admit that if left to my own devices I probably would have confined myself to pairing them with Japanese dishes (curry rice, anago don, tonkatsu). My mother-in-law, in her infinite wisdom, saw their greater potential. Under her guidance, we have savoured these pickles with everything from boeuf bourguignon to chicken rice. On occasion, we’ve cut them up and stuffed them into sandwiches. They’ve since become a kitchen staple in our household.
Pikurusu: Easy Japanese Boiled Pickles
Adapted from Easy Japanese Pickling by Seiko Ogawa. Feel free to substitute cucumbers and carrots with other vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower, daikon and radish.
1 fresh red chilli, deseeded and julienned
2 tbsp honey
1½ tsp sea salt
2 tbsp sugar
½ tsp peppercorns
1 bay leaf
⅔ cup water
¾ cup Japanese rice vinegar or distilled white vinegar
4 Japanese cucumbers
Combine the chilli, honey, salt, sugar, peppercorns, bay leaf and water in a pot. Bring to a boil. Then set it aside to cool before adding the vinegar.
Peel the cucumbers lengthwise in alternating strips so that you leave strips of skin running down them lengthwise. Cut them into 2cm thick circles. Peel the carrots and cut them into similar-sized chunks. Alternatively, you can cut the vegetables into faceted chunks using an angled cut-roll-cut technique or thick batons.
Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Add the carrots, let the water come back to a boil, then add the cucumbers. Stir briefly, then drain well in a colander.
When the vegetables are still hot, combine them with the pickling liquid. Stir them occasionally as they cool. They are ready to serve once they are cool. We usually jar them in pickling liquid. They can be stored in the refrigerator for about 10 days.