Japanese American Traditions

Tsukemono—What’s That Pickle All About?

If you have dined in a traditional Japanese restaurant, whether in the United States or in Japan, you have no doubt been greeted with o-cha (tea) and some variety of tsukemono (pickles).

While many Japanese Americans have come to expect and have developed a great fondness for this dining ritual, the dish at the center of this ritual, tsukemono, is ever changing in color and taste. Various kinds of radish, cucumber, eggplant, and turnip, to name a few, can be made into tsukemono.

The number and variety of pickles are testimony to their importance in Asian cuisine. Even though many people think of a radish as typically round, small, and red, those used in Japanese cooking range in color from red or pink to green or white and in shapes from round to oblong to tapered. They also vary in heat from mild to spicy hot.

Although you may think you have tried them all, a little research into the Kitazawa Seed Company in Oakland, California will tell you otherwise. The Kitazawa Seed Company sells more than 25 varieties of radish seeds alone, broken into seven categories. Among them are China Rose and Giant Luo Buo from the Chinese radishes, Oharu from the giant white radishes to Tae Baek and White Rat which are classified as Korean radishes.

After starting his seed company back in 1917 in San Jose, the company’s founder, Mr. Gijiu Kitazawa, sold all kinds of seeds from both domestic and foreign sources as well as promoting their own line of packaged seeds of Asian vegetables. These were mainly sold to customers who wanted to grow Asian vegetables in order to prepare traditional Japanese dishes. After ninety years and hundreds, if not thousands, of Japanese restaurant openings across the country, American taste buds and produce reflect the diversity of our population. Kitazawa Seed Company now offers over 250 seed varieties that produce traditional heirloom vegetables of Japan.

When talking about tsukemono, the Japanese view pickles, like miso, with a sense of nostalgia that conjures thoughts of home. There are countless regional variations of tsukemono—everyone seems to have a favorite from “back home.” Even in some of the older, more classical Japanese movies, the same story line emerges—young boy comes to the big city and yearns for home—specifically, Mama, her miso soup, and homemade tsukemono.

The regional variations are endless, and every small town, prefecture, and village has its own specialties, which are often packaged as souvenirs. Riding the trains through Japan, travelers can always find a huge choice at the station kiosks of dried foods, manju sweet cakes, and, of course, pickles, for sale.

Here, in the United States, most pickles are store-bought although older generations continue to make their own homestyle tsukemono for New Year’s celebrations or family gatherings. If you have a Japanese market near you, sample as many different kinds of tsukemono as you can and even experiment with pairing them with your various meals. I’ll bet you’ll discover some great combinations.

Happy hunting!

August 2006

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