So what about Japanese cuisine, and what about the soul of Japan? It's been the soul of Japan's job to spread the purest interpretation of the love of Japan and its bounty, and to extol the love of thick and beautiful Japanese Jukujo, amazing Niigata sake, and gorgeous onsen. I still believe that the embodiment of all-things-Japan is the Japanese Jukujo and that she must love the rice brew, Ise Jingu, and the Tenno. There is a sense of dignified beauty there that most normal folks overlook, and this is simply because they only view Japan through the lens of objectivity. Japan is not just some other country. Clear? Let's move on to what I'm really good at.
I have used written reviews by food critics as my gauge for choosing what to buy. One organization I have come to respect over the years is the Monde Selection, in spite of it being a foreign institution, it hails as the most important panel of judges of quality for many Japanese food producers. I have been following their recommendations for years in Japan. I use them when I'm selecting Japanese sake, fruit, and mineral water, but pickles? Now, that's a new one. In Japan, the term " tsukemono" means pickled things, and it's here that just about everything is pickled and preserved.
Japan's food culture is old, it pre-dates the 'slow food' revolution of Italy and North America; even refrigeration. Japanese have been pickling food for centuries, and in spite of my love for Japanese cuisine, I have never been a fan of its pickled foods; being too salty, or lacking taste are a couple of reasons. But, a "Takuan " a large radish, is good when prepared properly. I have to admit that for me, the best pickled food is the Japanese white winter radish. They are sweeter than the summer radishes.
Not everybody will like "Tsukemono." The one pickled food that you'll immediately recognize is the white radish when visiting Japan. When you first bite into one, you'll notice immediately how crunchy it is, and how well it complements whatever Japanese cuisine you are eating. Eating the white radish is best as it is, you do not need to add anything to it.
On my recent trip to Kawabata's snow country I stopped in one of the local stores to pick up several bags full of pickled vegetable and sake to take back home with me. I get together with some Jukujo back at my place and have a pickles and sake party on the weekday afternoons. I get a lot of sun shining in on my balcony and through my windows so that element also adds to the mood. Japanese pickles and Japanese sake are the best pairing for binge drinking on a lazy noon day, especially with your favorite somebody.
Some of the other bags of goodies I picked up were the pickled rakkyo(scallions) marinated in Japanese sake and shoyu. These were larger and more crunchy than the market variety. The sake is Kirinzan Daigenjyo-shu from Niigata. Daigenjyo sake are complex, and often times can stand up to a lot of pickled foods. Above the rakkyo is the Gobo, or root of a burdock, pickled. These dishes are typically popular with older Japanese people. Young Japanese often times will acquire a taste for European dish, then loose complete interest in some aged foods.
Not everybody will like pickled and aged foods. It's an acquired taste. Tsukemono is a major part of Japanese cuisine, and has been for centuries. Some foreigners complain that pickled foods are too salty, or too pungent. That could be like a Japanese person saying American food is too fatty and greasy, and therefore unhealthy for you. Critics abound in the foreign community about what they deem as healthy and delicious. Opinions like that should be taken with a grain of salt, or dismissed entirely.
How and where do you buy these pickled goodies? Just about anywhere you go in Japan you can find them; in supermarkets, souvenir shops, and so on. For me, I like riding up to Niigata to pick up pickled items because of the rarity of items you can choose from. Vegetables tend to grow better up in Hokuriku and Tohoku regions of Japan.
What to look for in taste: First is crunchiness. A good tsukemono is a crunchy tsukemono. And then texture and flavor. They are a bit salty, but then there're so many other flavors that you can pick up.
How to enjoy them: If you are a curry-man like myself, I love to add rakkyo to my curries along with Fukujinzuke, which is chopped red pickles, an excellent topping for spicy curries. I also love Benishoga which is shredded red ginger you see in beef bowl shops like Yoshinoya, which is also my favorite. I love a nice hot beef bowl with a nice mound of benishoga on top. In many sushi restaurant and conveyer belt sushi chains you can see Gari, another variety of pickled ginger that you eat with raw seafood. I can go on and on. But the thing here is that pickled foods is an integral part of Japanese cuisine. Enjoy them.