An Acquired Taste of Japan – Nukazuke!

Pickles, pickles, pickles.

They’re a quintessential part of Japanese cuisine, and along with rice it’s always served as a part of the traditional Japanese ichiju sansai meals, which roughly translates “one soup, three dishes.” They’re the sour-tart-sweet-savory tsukemono to accompany a meal. They’re the crunchy side for soft rice, savory fish and warm soup.

The variety of produce used for pickling and the methods for pickling them is astounding! Vegetables like daikon radish, carrots, cucumbers, cabbage and many others are perfectly pickled in soy sauce, vinegar, sake and uniquely, rice bran.

Rice bran pickled vegetables, called nukazuke, are richly flavored pickles that are made using a cultured and fermented rice bran pickling starter called nukadoko. Rice bran pickling is said to have been developed during the 17th century, when machine-milled white rice became the standard. Since milling rice also stripped it of some of its vitamin B content, deficiencies were found among the population often associated with an illness called beriberi. Rice bran pickling was introduced to prevent beriberi and reintroduce thiamine (or Vitamin B1) back into the Japanese diet. Vegetables pickled in a nukadoko absorb thiamine from the rice bran. Today, nukazuke pickles are well-known as providing both thiamine and gut-friendly probiotics. Pickling in this style is similar to making sauerkraut and yogurt, where bacteria ferments the vegetables over the long term.

Nukadoko

The nukadoko pickling bed is the most important element to making nukazake pickles. Nukadoko, at its most essential, is a combination of rice bran, salt, kombu, chili peppers, water and vegetable scraps.

Each component of the nukadoko bed serves a purpose. The rice bran serves as the base of the nukadoko. Using fresh, unprocessed rice bran–traditionally obtained at a rice mill–makes the best nukadoko, but in modern kitchens, high-quality rice bran purchased from a grocery store can be an equally good base. Between 13%-15% of high-quality salt, such as sea salt or kosher salt, is added to the rice bran. Kombu seaweed is added to incorporate umami flavors into the mix, and chili peppers are added to prevent molding. Fresh, distilled or filtered water, with any chemicals used to clean the water removed, is added to keep everything moist and alive.  Finally, vegetable scraps such as cabbage wedges are added to the mixture to begin the growth of beneficial yeast and lactobacillus bacteria, which then ferments the pickles. The resulting mix resembles wet sand with a few lumps in it!

Once the basic mixture is created, it is cultured in a non-reactive container made of enameled metal, glass or wood between 68°F and 77°F. The pickling starter is aerated by mixing it with clean hands one to two times a day, until it smells clean and slightly sour. At this point, the vegetable scraps are removed and the nukadoko is ready to use for pickling vegetables!

Finished and prepared nukazuke pickles

Nukadoko are highly prized and cared for. Some starters are passed down for generations, over decades. Pickling fanatics even take their nukadoko with them when they travel in order to maintain the freshness of the beds! The more cultivated the nukadoko is, the more complex the flavor of the resulting nukazuke pickles. As vegetables are pickled and removed from the nukadoko, the pickling bed is replenished with rice bran, salt, water and seasonings.

Apple and yuzu peels are sometimes added to the nukadoko to infuse sweet and fruity aromas into the pickles. Vegetables such as radishes, carrots, cucumbers and eggplant are delicious when pickled in the nukadoko!

Have you ever tasted nukazuke pickles? What did you think? Be sure to share your favorites with us below!

 

Product Inspirations – Stainless Steel Food Jar (SW-GCE36)

Last month, we featured our Ms. Bento® Stainless Lunch Jar and the great ways that you can take a fresh and complete meal with you, whether you’re at school, the office, traveling, picnicking or just out and about. This month, we’re excited to share our Stainless Steel Food Jar (SW-GCE36) with you!

This stylish food jar holds 12 ounces of hot or cold food, and because it uses Zojirushi’s double-walled vacuum insulation technology, foods are kept at their optimal hot or cold temperatures for hours. The vacuum insulation is created by removing the air between the outer and inner layers of the stainless steel, blocking heat from transferring through it. This minimizes the temperature change of the food inside the jar, providing a useful way to safely pack and store a meal when a refrigerator or microwave may not be readily available.

SlickSteel® interior

This food jar comes in a Cherry Red or Nut Brown finish and has a modern, angled design, and the thin vacuum insulation takes up minimal space while maximizing capacity. The large 3 ¼-inch wide opening makes it easy to fill and clean and its electro-polished 18/8 SlickSteel® interior prevents corrosion and repels stains. The flat interior design makes it easy to eat directly from the food jar, and it even has a removable plastic ring around the rim of the jar for drinking comfort, in case it is filled with a beverage or soup.

The lid is just as innovatively designed as the jar itself. It’s completely disassemblable for thorough cleaning and utilizes gaskets to tightly seal the jar, minimizing leaks and maximizing temperature retention. When released, the valve in the center of the lid set helps to relieve pressure caused by hot contents inside the jar and makes it easier to open the lid.

Best of all, all areas that come into contact with your food are BPA-free, making it safe to use for your entire family.

The Stainless Steel Food Jar is great for both adults and children. Back-to-school meals such as macaroni and cheese, Chicken Noodle Soup and easy rice dishes like Shiitake Gohan are ideal school meals, easily transported in the food jar. Morning meals like Steel Cut Oatmeal To-Go are easy to make in the food jar and the food jars transition well from the hot months of summer to the colder months of autumn and winter, with lighter fare such as our Stacked Pasta Salad staying cool, and dishes like Total Tonjiru Soup staying hot.

We know you’ll love using this Stainless Steel Food Jar just as much as you do the Ms. Bento® Stainless Steel Lunch Jar. Try it out and share what you love about this Stainless Steel Food Jar in the comments below!

National Bento Month

Wasn’t September National Bento Month? Yeah, I think it is—and to celebrate, I’m urging you to bring at least one bento a week this month! Easy for me to say…I bring my lunches to work every day anyway, even though they’re not all bentos. Sorry, but even bringing leftovers to me is better than the food choices where I work—nothing but fast food and sandwich joints. No plate lunches ‘round here! My rule of thumb: if you can’t eat it with chopsticks, it doesn’t belong in my lunch! Of course in my case, I eat everything with chopsticks—even my salads. It’s just easier that way to me, and it’s a habit I picked up in Japan.

The important thing is not to sweat what you bring in your bento—as long as you like it, who cares? No one says you have to get elaborate like those “Kyara-ben” (character bentos) that the Japanese moms spend so much time crafting. There’s no need to get intimidated—if I can make a bento, anyone can. Some days I’m literally frying up spam and eggs and packing it with some rice, I swear! (But at least have some furikake handy to sprinkle on your rice tho—makes it look better.) And it helps to get a bento box at your local Asian market if you have one. I didn’t realize there were so many kinds of bento boxes until I started thinking about it. Here’s a few of the most popular types:


Plastic
These are the most common ones you see at the Asian markets, and they come in all shapes, sizes and colors. The best thing about these is they come with sectioned compartments that keep your side dishes separate from each other. The lids are usually sealed pretty good with rubberized gaskets, almost to the point of being airtight. This helps when you have juicy food—it’s not going to leak out if you accidentally flip it over, at least not immediately. And many of them come with their own chopsticks, or are designed to stack double-deck style to keep the rice completely apart from the entree, in its own box, in case you have juicy food.


A more mainstream type of food container is the translucent plastic, with the flexible snap on lids. These are getting more sophisticated too, because of the popularity of bento. A lot of them come with their own utensils, they also have compartments, and many are microwavable. They’re usually lighter in weight which some people may appreciate, and they’re probably cheaper.


Wood
This very elegant box is classic and very traditional, made of curved or straightened cedar and cypress by a very long, handcrafting process. It’s very expensive, but it’s no doubt the most stylish—and the wood helps keep the food cool and tasty, while keeping the rice at the perfect moisture. The faint whiff of natural wood when you open these boxes enhances the experience. These are definitely not airtight, so you wouldn’t want to pack anything liquid in them because they are not leakproof. But it really makes the food inside look delicious, doesn’t it? Don’t be packing spam and eggs in one of these! A word of caution—don’t stick these boxes in a dishwasher, and you’ll need to thoroughly air-dry them so the wood doesn’t deteriorate. If you want to go completely authentic with this kind of bento box, bring it to work wrapped in a furoshiki, a traditional square of patterned cloth that is meant to carry small packages and can also be used as a placemat.


A bento box wrapped in a furoshiki cloth.


A faux wooden container ekiben (train station bento).


Metal
Metal bento boxes are either aluminum or stainless steel. Being non-porous, their greatest advantage is that they won’t absorb stains or odors so they clean up extremely well. The aluminum ones are coated, so like the stainless steel ones, they’re made to resist corrosion. Of course you can’t microwave them, but metal is pretty durable and lightweight. Stainless steel is especially popular because it’s so easy to care for and they’re very attractive and stylish. I feel like they’re almost fashionably retro in a way, and they’re definitely kid friendly because of their durability and easy to open lids.


Thermal Insulated
And finally, probably the most high-tech bento box you can buy, the lunch jar cannisters that are partially thermal insulated to keep the food inside warm or chilled, depending on what you’re bringing. They are only partially insulated so that you can keep certain foods away from the hot foods, thus ensuring that nothing spoils. These are cleverly designed to house stackable containers, some that get secured in the thermal section, while others are kept at room temperature. Of course, the big plus with these lunch jars is that you can have hot or chilled food anytime, so they’re great for outdoor work or even picnics. They have multiple parts, but in general they’re easy to clean—I have to warn you that they could be bulky and heavy for kids to bring to school. You can read more about these Zojirushi Lunch Jars here.

Have I inspired you yet to make your own bento this month? If you’re stuck on what kind of lunch to bring, read more about the different types of bento here, or elsewhere online for ideas. Really though, the point is to make your lunch more fun!

 

photo sources:
Bentology, wooden box (Joi Ito), double deck box (Patricia Harold), curved wooden box & metal box (Gamene), furoshiki (Saotin), thermal (Zojirushi)

Used with permission or by Creative Commons license

 

 

The Voices of Zojirushi – Jimmy!

This month, we’re happy to share insights from one of our newer employees, Jimmy, who’s role as an Accounting Manager helps the company stay on track!

Jimmy joined Zojirushi America six months ago, where he manages daily operations in the accounting department, produces and maintains financial statements and reports, and keeps the organization on track by establishing proper accounting policies and procedures.

While Jimmy is a numbers-oriented person, you’ll see how his unique perspective brings forth his love of Japanese food and culture.

Jimmy, tell us a little bit about yourself.

I was born and raised in Japan and moved to the United States when I was 18 years old. I love both countries but have to say that I miss my favorite yakitori restaurants from Japan!

Yakitori, or skewered sticks of grilled chicken or other meats and vegetables

Yum! We always love hearing about our employees’ and fans’ favorite foods and get inspired by their ideas. Our tagline is “Inspirations from everyday life” and we love it when people are truly inspired by our products. What else do you find exciting about Zojirushi products?

Having grown up in Japan, I always knew about how premium Zojirushi products were. But it wasn’t until I started working here that I learned about how much work goes into developing the technologies that make Zojirushi products so great. For example, the vacuum insulated stainless steel mugs and bottles are fantastic—they maintain the temperature of drinks so effectively that it actually astonishes people! We get so much positive feedback from our customers reporting that these products exceed their expectations, and that they find our products to be sophisticated and user-friendly.

If you could tell people one great thing about Zojirushi, what would it be?

It’s definitely the family environment and friendly employees that makes coming to work every day a pleasure, as well as the small size of our company here in California. We all work together and each member is valued, whether they’re in our accounting department or in other areas like customer service or technical support. That’s the best thing about working here!

The Japanese Enbudaki (NW-KA10) rice cooker and warmer

Finally, what would you like to see as the next great Zojirushi product? Or, what new innovation would you like to see added to our current products?

Zojirushi Japan has many great products that I wish we could have here in America. For example, I recently purchased a brand-new high-end pressure induction rice cooker for my parents, the Enbudaki (NW-KA10), which is available only in Japan. That rice cooker has so many innovative features including the new heating technology where it utilizes three induction heating coils, instead of one, to create a convection effect within the inner pan while cooking. My parents love the rice cooked in this rice cooker! I’d love to have that one here.

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We hope that you enjoyed virtually meeting Jimmy! And stay tuned for our next Voices of Zojirushi!

 

An Acquired Taste of Japan – Nameko!

We want nameko!

What are they, you ask?

Mushrooms!

Specifically, the small, amber-brown fungi that have a thin, gelatinous layer on their caps. Technically named Pholiota Nameko, these mushrooms are typically used in miso soup, nabemono or Japanese style hot pot and stir fries and the viscous coating on the caps form a lustrous glaze when they’re cooked. And considering how slippery they are, it makes perfect sense that the name literally means “slippery child” in Japanese!

These mushrooms grow on the sides of trees, in clusters that look like small woodland creatures wearing helmets. (In Japan, there’s even a smart phone game inspired by how cute nameko are!) Mushrooms are a type of fungus, characterized by stems, caps and gills on the underside of the caps. They also have an inner structure unique among fungi, allowing them to gather nutrients from their host, such as a tree, soil or other plants. Nameko, and other Japanese mushrooms, certainly benefit from that!

Nameko mushrooms can be foraged in the wild, but most often are cultivated on dead deciduous trees. The trees are brought to the ideal temperature and moisture level and are then inoculated with nameko spores. These dead trees, called bed logs, are laid out in a crisscross pattern so that they form a field that has proper aeration for the mushrooms to grow on. The spores are encouraged to grow, first extending the stems of the mushrooms and then maturing with well-formed caps.

Nameko have a nutty taste and impart a great deal of umami, or deliciousness, to foods. Along with using it in miso soup to impart a savory flavor and a creamy texture, nameko is cooked fresh with grated radish, stir fried with vegetables and meats, and added to soba noodles as a delicious topping.

This mushroom, while not widely known outside of Japan, is lovely and delicate and we hope you try it during your next adventures with Japanese food. Be sure to leave us a comment with your experience!