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Nikkei Chronicles #1: ITADAKIMASU! A Taste of Nikkei Culture

Our Lady Queen Of Pickles

My last assignment before quitting the Army was at Valley Forge Army Medical Center, in the Pennsylvania boondocks. We found an apartment in Phoenixville,1 where the locals (population near 14,000) clearly divided the motto E pluribus unum into three distinct war zones: Slovak, Pole, and across-the-tracks. The Slovakian and the Polish contingents tolerated each other—even attended Mass together. However, both maintained rigid incommunicado with the west-of-the-railroad Italians. In such a world of hostile microcosms, finding anything Japanese would have required divine intervention.

One day we heard about New Jersey’s Seabrook Farms, where almost the entire workforce was Japanese.2 Though the trip required several hours of solid driving it was worth it, if only to reduce our nostalgia for short-grain rice, tsukemono, and narazuke.3

By 1954, the Army and I had enough of each other, so I quit and moved to California. We weren’t even settled when the kanai decided to begin creating her own tsukemono. No more salting, pressing, and seasoning regular cabbage to make do; now that napa4 was available almost everywhere, you had to return to the rigorous cultural canons your Mom taught you. Oh, how well you remembered those bitter days of the Pacific War, when, sometimes, all the comfort your young tummy got was a cup of ochazuke—rice, tea, and Grandma Hirama’s inimitable pickles.

Creating your own tsukemono in those days required to grow your own vegetables; wash them; season them; place them in well-organized layers in your own 漬物器 tsukemonoki—a cherry-wood bucket; perhaps add a touch of Aji-no-moto, and press them with a 漬物石tsukemonoishi—a heavy, well-polished rock, you snatched from the Shiroishi River’s bed.

But with the Shiroishi so far away, and cherry-wood buckets having become collectors’ items, here you had to make-do with that small plastic jar with a top that could screw downwards, and squeeze the veggies.

ESGVJCC Ayame Kai group (left to right) Mrs. Omiya (Teruyo), Yoshie Sato, Reiko Moreno, Rec. Kon Kawawata, Chef Ryo Sato, Aya Kamimura, Kay Kanayama -- preparing the day's tsukemono. Note the makeshift weight on the daikon.

Since successful tsukemono-makers love to share, that little plastic contraption soon became incapable of meeting your needs. So, your creative mind found a medium-size white-plastic bucket to play the role of tsukemonoki; three large glass bottles full of water as stand-by for the tsukemonoishi, and a large melamine dinner plate to become the pressing top. Now you could devote the little plastic container to make sunomono5 and other concoctions, and from then on you were ready to convert every friend into a tsukemonophiliac.

A miracle of ingenuity occurred one weekend. On Saturday, Reiko-chan found a real tsukemonoki, which of course she grabbed immediately. On Sunday we went to Hemmet; made a rest stop at the river; and soon I was drafted into carrying a pair of large well-polished rocks from the river bed. After much washing and disinfecting, the stones became my lady’s prized tsukemonoishi. And, because it had all the flavor of Japan, the wooden cover for the nabe pot was given a new assignment: to serve as the base for the pressing stones.

* * *

Early that summer, a close friend called to say: Come and get it! She went, and returned loaded with what seemed like a ton of niga uri—bitter melon. Next, she forced the already cramped interior of the refrigerator to admit three large packages of miso, and four of sake-lees. Next, we raced all over Little Tokyo trying to locate a couple of midsize white plastic tubs, which after cleaned, were lined with plastic bags, and filled to the brim with who-knows-how-many kilo of would-be narazuke.

No Wednesday lunch could be complete without the traditional tsukemono adornments. The Leisure Chef Kitchen Brigade

Since our kumquat was also prodigal that year, the kanai decided to pickle some. So we went into another shopping expedition looking for top waka—vodka, rock sugar, and sufficiently large jars to store her concoction.

—If you catch a cold, the best remedy is a little glass of the liqueur: lots of Vitamin C.

The cherries were also abundant and low-priced, why not preserve some too? So here we go again, this time looking for Christian Brothers brandy.

—It has to be Christian Brothers, nothing else works. You can use the cherries for Cherry Jubilee, or to decorate a cake. It also saves me from going from store to store looking for something special for Christmas or New Year.

Next, a portion of our backyard was sequestered—under spousal eminent domain, I guess—and assigned to cultivate fuki6 and myoga.7 Every summer, Our Lady Queen of Pickles would crawl on her knees to cut the best shoots of fuki, and then hide between the tall myoga canes searching for the magic flowers.

—You have to get the flowers when they show just a hint of purple. If you let them open, they are not good for eating.

* * *

Just as an experiment, I planted a chayote in the front yard. The first year there were more than eight dozen squash on it. We used what we could in our diet, but there were still lots of chayote left.

—Mottai nai… I’m going to pickle them.
—What?
—Pickle them, Hawaiian style.

Leisure Club's second co-vice presidents Setsuko Kawato and Reiko Moreno inspect the tsukemono in the traditional green bowl

She took me to the supermarket and told me to load a full case of beer in the shopping cart. Don’t ask me what brand—I stayed away as she paid at the cashier; after all I felt as if my reputation were on the line. When we returned home, she readied a bunch of leftover chayote. A couple of days later, she arranged them inside the buckets and added sugar and several cans of beer to each container. I’m sure the squash had a bacchanal because when ready, they became a sensation.

Now you had tsukemono, narazuke, sunomono, egg-plant, daikon, and chayote for summer; brandied cherries for Xmas; and bottled kinkan for the season of colds; next figure out what to do with the excess of Hachiya persimmons.

—You can’t just sit and watch the birds make a royal mess. Just, peel them; bathe them in vodka and wrap them in plastic; let the enzymes work for a couple of days and then put them in the freezer. Eat them at wintertime when you want something really sweet.

—Ah, so, I quipped: drunken khaki… It sounds so militaristic!

—You can also make persimmon yokan. But it takes a lot of effort.

Autumn is the season for the persimmon to take their traditional bath...of vodka.

Where or from whom did the kanai get her ideas for pickles it will remain her secret. Overheard bits of over-the-phone chatter are all I remember.

—For good narazuke you have to wait at least three months. Or,
—Takuan needs just a little bit of sweetness… and the like.

Perhaps hundreds of thousands of years of Japanese collective unconscious kicked in her mind the ideas on how to make simple vegetables sing.

When ready to pickle a batch she just would take a look at her shorthand notes and then, non-stop sequences followed until each bucket was full, and the used implements well washed.

* * *

I’m so sorry. I began with the idea of telling you how the pickles affected Japanese culture, but I got distracted. Nostalgia is so powerful!

At least be it known that narazuke can trace its ancestry to the Nara jidai, 710-794, and tsukemono to the years before refrigeration. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsukemono could be a good starter to learn about the enormous variety of these tasty morsels all over Japan, and in every Nikkei community in the rest of the world.

 

Notes:

1. Phoenixville is a borough in Chester County, Pennsylvania, 28 miles northwest of Philadelphia. It was settled in 1732, and became the site of great iron and steel mills, boiler works, silk mill, underwear and hosiery factories, a match factory, and the famous Etruscan majolica pottery. Phoenixville owes its growth to its waterways. It is situated on the broad Schuylkill River, and crossed by French Creek, both historic transport means for Native Americans and early settlers.
2. Those people were “paroled” internees from the wartime concentration camps. They had opted to work as farmhands rather than to remain in the prison camps—the ‘internment centers.’
3. Tsukemono are Japanese pickles. Narazuke, also Kasuzuke (粕漬け?), and kasu-zuke, is an ancient Japanese dish made by pickling fish or vegetables in the lees (residual yeast and other precipitates) of sake, known as sake kasu. See: Oh Sushi. ESGVJCC Newsette. December 2008.
4. Napa is also known as Chinese Cabbage.
5. Sunomono. Cucumbers, pickled Japanese style, with salt and their own juice.
6. Fuki: 菜蕗, native to Japan is also known as bog rhubarb, or giant butterbur. The spring growth is relished as a vegetable. In its natural state it’s very harsh, so you discard the leaves and use only the stems, which are treated with ash or baking soda and soaked in water. The bulb-like tender shoots can be chopped and stir fried with miso to make Fuki-miso, eaten as a relish thinly spread over hot rice. They are also picked fresh and fried as tempura.
7. Myōga (茗荷) or myoga ginger is native to Japan. Both its flowers and tender shoots are delicious to eat. In Japanese cuisine, they are used as garnish for miso soup, sunomono, and roasted eggplant. Some constituents of myoga have shown promise for potentially anti-carcinogenic properties. There is an old saying in Japan that eating too much myoga makes you forgetful or stupid.
8. The process is rather cumbersome. Cut the squash, soak it in salty water, press all the liquid out of it, dry the chayote; and then pickle them with sake lees.

© 2012 Edward Moreno

california ESGVJCC food Itadakimasu narazuke Nikkei Chronicles Ryo Sato Seabrook Farms southern california tsukemono

About this series

For many Nikkei around the world, food is often the strongest and most lasting connection they have with their culture. Across generations, language and traditions are often lost, but their connections to food remain.

Discover Nikkei collected stories from around the world related to the topic of Nikkei food culture and its impact on Nikkei identity and communities. This series introduces these stories. 

 Our Editorial Committee selected their favorite stories in each language. Here are their favorites:

To learn more about this writing project >>


Check out these other Nikkei Chronicles series:

#2: Nikkei+ ~ Stories of Mixed Language, Traditions, Generations & Race ~
#3: Nikkei Names: Taro, John, Juan, João?
#4: Nikkei Family: Memories, Traditions, and Values 
#5: Nikkei-go: The Language of Family, Community, and Culture 
#6: Itadakimasu 2!: Another Taste of Nikkei Culture