A Taste of Culture Through TsukemonoJul 30th, 2009 | By Shane Sakata | Category: Featured Articles, Food
Nothing goes to waste in the Japanese kitchen says Elizabeth Andoh. It’s a statement that she goes on to prove as she conducts a recent workshop on how to make tsukemono, Japanese pickles. A nub of ginger that is too small to grate without risking harm to your knuckles, a small piece of carrot or a leftover portion of cabbage can all be tossed in the pickle pot and result in some tasty dishes meant to accompany a traditional Japanese meal.
As Ms. Andoh conducts the “In a Pickle” culinary workshop she shares with the participants the wealth of food knowledge that she has gained living the majority of her life in Japan and from her years of study at the prestigious Yanagihara Kinsaryu School of Traditional Japanese Cuisine. A native New Yorker, she also has a degree in anthropology and a keen interest in the science of food, its roots in necessity and how a culture is built around native foods.
Mt. Fuji is as much a symbol of Japan as its food and it seems only fitting that on a clear day it can be seen from the Tokyo kitchen where A Taste of Culture workshops are held. Unlike the mountain that is shrouded in clouds more often than not, Ms. Andoh sheds light on the foods of Japan: how to prepare them, how to serve them and even how to enjoy them. The participants on this day span the globe from Finland to India and from Canada to Germany and all want to learn more about pickles from the author of Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen and a contributor to Gourmet magazine for over 30 years.
As we chop, simmer, boil and ultimately create two different types of Japanese pickles, sokuseki-zuke (impatient pickles) and amazu shoga (pink pickled ginger) Ms. Andoh talks about formulas more than recipes and along the way shares with us the nutritional value of the various ingredients and a variety of interesting information about the Japanese kitchen where a pickle pot commonly resides on the counter or in the fridge of most homes.
As we start Ms. Andoh is quick to point out that tsukemono are not pickles in the true sense of the word. The name is derived to the the verb tsukaru which more closely resembles the English word “marinate” in meaning. While pickles have a long shelf life, most tsukemono have a limited shelf life and are best consumed within a relatively short period of time. The art of making tsukemono is in the relative proportion of ingredients and in the timing of the actual pickling, or brining, process itself. The variety of vegetables that can be utilized in the pickle pot is immense – the colors intense and all from nature or enhanced by natural ingredients like aka jiso (red shiso) leaves for a vibrant red or kuchinashi no mi (dried gardenia pod) for an intense yellow color.
It is difficult to put into words the effect that attending a workshop at Ms. Andoh’s Taste of Culture kitchen has on its participants. Part cooking school, part food lecture and part food history and science education – all very interesting and inspiring. The discussion on this day ranged from foods mentioned in the Kojiki, the oldest surviving Japanese book dating back to 712, that are still being made today in much the same manner but with the assistance of modern kitchen gadgets like the hard plastic pickle pot and microwave, not to mention the convenience of refrigeration.
I left the “In a Pickle” culinary workshop with much more than the two small jars of pickles we created and the samples of ingredients that are often unknown to or difficult for non-native Japanese to find let alone procure without a firm grasp of both written and verbal Japanese.
Participants are provided extensive written information on the workshop topic prior and advanced reading of the material only enhances the experience. Ms. Andoh also provides homework and requests that students email her with feedback on the results. Andoh has earned her stripes in the world of Japanese food and cooking, she is the only non-Japanese member of the prestigious Japan Food Journalists Association (JFJ), but she remains very approachable and her passion for Japanese food is contagious.
A Taste of Culture programs are conducted in English and attract both foreign residents of Japan and independent tourist-visitors to Japan at kitchens in either Tokyo or Osaka as are seasonal and ingredient specific tasting programs. Market tours and onsite workshops can also be arranged.
A three hour culinary class, like the “In a Pickle” culinary workshop I attended and have documented here in pictures, culminates with a shared meal where participants dine on dishes made during the class that are often supplemented from Ms. Andoh’s well stocked refrigerator. If she speaks about a dish or ingredient during a workshop there is a good chance that you will get to touch, smell or taste it by the end of your time in her kitchen.
If you live in or are planning a visit to Tokyo or Osaka and love Japanese food, make an effort to include and Taste or Culture program on your itinerary at the outset. Your experience of Japanese food culture will be enhanced immeasurably.
Visit the A Taste of Culture website for program schedule, registration information, location and additional information.
If you can’t get to Tokyo why not purchase your very own copy of Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen and put Ms. Andoh’s Japanese food recipes and wisdom to work in your own kitchen?
For more on my pickle making adventures inspired by Ms. Andoh and my day in the Taste of Culture Tokyo kitchen please take a moment to read my guest post “Making Japanese Pickles the Washoku Way” on La Fuji Mama, where enthusiastic fans of Ms. Andoh’s Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen have teamed up as the Washoku Warriors to work through the recipes in the cookbook.
“In a Pickle” Tsukemono Workshop in Pictures:
Image credit: Personal Collection