Every country with a strong drinking culture offers some sort of pickle. The crisp acidity that comes from a pickled vegetable, whether it is a cucumber or cabbage, awakens the palate and pairs well with everything from beer to sake. In Japan, tsukemono (pickles) are ubiquitous, but none may be as unique as nuka-zuke, which are pickles that are fermented in a damp mixture of rice bran (the hard outer shell of rice), salt, and water. Probiotic, and packed with more Vitamin B1 and minerals than typical vegetables, nuka-zuke is also as healthy for you as it is delicious.
At Azasu, the izakaya on the Lower East Side’s Clinton Street, Chef Kazumi Motoi makes his nuka-zuke from scratch (as well for their sister restaurant Yopparai). As he explained, nuka-zuke is different from typical methods of pickling, which usually involves salt, vinegar, sugar, or a combination. With nuka-zuke, there is a lot more time spent on the pickling mixture, a mash of rice bran, water, and salt called nuka-doko. Once mixed together, the nuka-doko is then allowed to ferment in a cool, dark environment, while being matured with vegetable peels and ends (that would otherwise be discarded) in order to fuel the production of lactobacilli.
Chef Motoi presented a sample of his nuka-doko, and it is as you might imagine with anything fermented, the scent has a strong, distinct funk to it. At first sight, it looks like miso. To the touch, however, the consistency is almost like wet sand – delicate, not overtly sticky, and warm. The chef revealed that this particular batch was about a year old, maintained with daily mixing by hand in order to aerate it, keep the cultures active, and avoid the growth of mold. When successfully maintained, a good nuka-doko can last for years.
The vegetables Chef Motoi uses for nuka-zuke (he prefers Asian cucumber, carrots, daikon, and radishes) are completely buried under the surface of the mixture for one to two days. When you pull them out, you can immediately feel how they are lighter and more pliable. But how do they taste? As intense as the nuka-doko is to the nose, nuka-zuke pickles are actually quite mellow – crisp, delicious, and without any overbearing notes. And when you consider that it is actually helping your digestive system, you won’t hesitate ordering just one more drink.
— Reported by Nobi Nakanishi
49 Clinton St., (bet. Rivington & Stanton Sts.), New York, NY 10002
TEL: 212-777-7069 | www.azasunyc.com
Though still, this mixture is a bed of activity, filled with bacteria and cultures that aid the digestive system.
Chef Motoi going ‘hands on’ with his nuka-doko, which he has painstakingly cultivated from scratch.
This piece of daikon has been in for about a day, and you can already feel the difference in texture.
Nuka-zuke requires a delicate touch. Gently push vegetables in until they disappear – make sure they don’t break, and keep them from touching.