THE GOCHISO GOURMET: Are you in a pickle?

columnist-logo_ryantatsumoto_FINALI’ll admit it, early on in my formative years I was in a pickle more often than not. Forging excuse notes from Mom when I was in the third grade (thinking back, it took a lot of cajones to try to imitate Mom’s immaculate cursive), smuggling unappealing food in my milk carton past the teacher to the “dump” bucket (way back when, teachers did lunch plate checks to make sure students consumed most of their lunch) or getting other students in trouble when they repeated my hushed comments in the back of the class. You get the picture, I wasn’t exactly a role model elementary school student.

And during the same time period, I never really cared for culinary pickles, either. Namasu (vegetables with vinegar), not really. Dill pickles, nope. About once a year Dad made a large batch of miso– (fermented soybean paste) based cabbage pickles, but I didn’t enjoy them after he procured a batch of Napa cabbage that had critters, whose carcasses eventually floated to the top of the pickling brine.

But time moves on and life changes, including our palates, and I now find that pickles, with their sweet, salty, sour and sometimes bitter flavors, perfectly balance and complement the richer flavors of fats and proteins.

Chinese Pickles

My favorite application can be found right in my own hometown, though you probably can find it in yours as well. It’s usually just listed on the menu as beef or pork with sweet and sour cabbage. This dish has the perfect blend of thinly sliced beef or pork with pickled mustard cabbage. It should be mustard cabbage because only mustard cabbage has that unique flavor with a hint of bitterness that by itself can balance the richness of beef or pork. Add both a sweet and sour component to the mix and you now have food nirvana. If I ever do another pop-up dinner (“So you wanna be a chef, huh” in the Dec. 6, 2012 issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly), I’ll try to create my own version of the traditional Italian beef sandwich. You know, the thinly sliced beef dipped in gravy topped with giardiniera or Italian pickled vegetables. Well, filling a hoagie roll with wok fried beef and pickled mustard cabbage would make it a Chinese beef sandwich.

Korean Pickles

Kimchi. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Kimchi. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

I enjoy the full range of banchan served at Korean restaurants, which include many pickled dishes, but my favorite is still the classic kimchi. And creating this classic Korean pickle doesn’t even involve adding any acid or vinegar. The acids are created as the cabbage naturally ferments. But the end product has a versatility rivaling most of its other vinegared cousins by functioning perfectly as a side dish, chopped and incorporated into a main dish, kimchi stew; chopped and stir fried for a perfect starch, kimchi fried rice; or used along other fresh vegetables for a vegetarian selection, kimchi mandu (Korean dumpling). And other than the salty and slightly sour qualities it brings to the table, it also adds an extra dimension — spice!

Vietnamese Pickles

Though it’s the only Vietnamese pickle that I know, those julienne slices of sweet and sour daikon (radish) and carrots in a bánh mi are one of my favorite sandwich additions. And it doesn’t specifically have to be a bánh mi. I enjoy them in tuna, turkey sandwiches and even veggie patty sandwiches. But the daikon and carrot do chua (pickles) shine best in a traditional bánh mi as their sweet, tart and salty flavors balance the rich roasted pork and pate, creamy mayonnaise and herbal cilantro in what I consider one of the best sandwiches ever created. And to think that I never really embraced namasu, which traditionally uses the same root vegetables and is also pickled. Maybe if Mom placed some namasu in a bánh mi-like sandwich, things would have been different.

Japanese Pickles

Though I’ll still reach for do chua before namasu, I do enjoy miso-flavored pickles and occasionally make my own. However, unlike Dad’s version which uses Napa cabbage, I prefer using head cabbage for my version, as I like the crunch that head cabbage provides. But there is one Japanese pickle that I crave over all others: Yatsumi-zuke (a pickled cabbage dish). Obaachan used to occasionally make a batch and she even gave me the recipe she used. Though I dearly loved Obaachan and her yatsumi-zuke and appreciated every batch she created, I craved the yatsumi-zuke sold at the old Tropics Market in the old Farmer’s Market across Ward Warehouse. It was always stored in those four-gallon sized glass “cracked seed” vessels, which looked like huge apothecary bottles in the refrigerated section next to the produce. When I started noticing that it wasn’t always available, I asked one of the clerks if it was possible to get the recipe (the clerk was actually one of the owners of Tropics), she said even they didn’t know the recipe. A retired employee used to make the yatsumi-zuke, but as she got older, she made it less frequently, until she eventually passed away.

But what makes yatsumi-zuke so special? For starters, it’s a combination of head and mustard cabbage, so it provides a nice crunch with a little bitterness. The brine also contains sugar, vinegar, and some powdered dashi (savory Japanese stock), which usually includes both seaweed and bonito extract to boost the umami (savory taste). Plus, a touch of shoyu (soy sauce), garlic and ginger for extra kick. It has so much flavor that I can consume it as my main course. A bowl of steaming hot rice, yatsumi-zuke, a single fresh raw egg and a couple of dashes of furikake (rice condiment with seaweed and sesame seeds)? Heaven!

So while the Tropics yatsumi-zuke is a distant memory, I still have Obaachan’s recipe, which is a reasonable substitute and can be consumed with the same applications.

Yatsumi-zuke

1 medium cabbage

3 bunch mustard cabbage

¼ cup Hawaiian salt or coarse sea salt

2 tbsp sesame seed (optional)

Cut vegetables into bite sized pieces. Mix with Hawaiian salt and let sit for 30 minutes then rinse and squeeze out excess water. Mix with sesame seed.

1/3 cup shoyu

¼ cup vinegar

¼ cup brown sugar

1 small garlic clove, minced

Dash of Ajinomoto

½ package dashi no moto (soup stock)

Small piece fresh ginger (optional)

Bring to simmer until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat then pour over the vegetables while the mixture is still hot. Bottle and refrigerate.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

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