Are you in a Pickle?
I’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 3rd 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). Getting other students in trouble when they repeated
my “hushed” comments in the back of the class. You get the picture, not exactly a role model
elementary school student.
And during the same time period, I never really cared for culinary pickles as well. Namasu, not
really. Dill pickles, nope. About once a year Dad made a large batch of miso based cabbage
pickles but I didn’t enjoy them after he procured a batch of Napa cabbage that wasn’t free of
“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 pickles with their
sweet, salty, sour and sometimes bitter flavors perfectly balance and complement the richer
flavors of fats and proteins.
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. The perfect blend of thinly sliced beef or pork with pickled mustard cabbage. And 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. But now add both a sweet and
sour component to the mix and you now have food nirvana. If I ever do another Pop-Up
dinner, 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 giardinera or Italian pickled vegetables. Well,
filling a hoagie roll with wok fried beef and pickled mustard cabbage would make it a Chinese
I enjoy the full range of banchan served at Korean restaurants which include many pickled
dishes but my favorite is still the classic kim chi. 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 (kim chi stew), chopped and
stir fried for a perfect starch (kim chi fried rice) or used along other fresh vegetables for a
vegetarian selection (kim chi mandoo). And other than the salty and slightly sour qualities it
brings to the table, it also adds an extra dimension – spice!
Though it’s the only Vietnamese pickle that I know, those julienne slices of sweet and sour
daikon and carrots in a banh mi are one of my favorite sandwich additions. And it doesn’t
specifically have to be a banh mi sandwich. I enjoy them in tuna sandwiches, turkey sandwiches
and even veggie patty sandwiches. But the daikon and carrot do chua shine best in a traditional
banh 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 banh mi like sandwich, things would
have been different.
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. And it’s not because of nightmares seeing “critters” floating
on the brining surface, I simply like the crunch that head cabbage provides. But there is one
Japanese pickle that I crave over all others. Yatsumi-zuke. Obaachan used to occasionally make
a batch and she even gave me the recipe she used and 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
4 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 provided them
with the yatsumi-zuke but as she got older, made it less frequently until she eventually passed
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 not just
sugar and vinegar but also some powdered dashi which usually includes both seaweed and bonito
extract to boost the umami. Plus a touch of shoyu, garlic and ginger for extra kick. 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… Heaven! No, make that 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.
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
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.