Shaki Shaki: Exploring the World of Japanese Pickles (Tsukemono)

Pickling is both an art form and a science in Japan, taking on a spectrum of textures, flavors, and colors. Whether served in simple bento lunches or multi-course kaiseki feasts, these side dishes are always a special part of each meal. If you’re new to Japanese pickles, let us introduce you to these nutrient-packed, crunchy, and delicious side dishes.

A white round plate with sliced pickles and a long black plate with whole veggie pickles.

The Art of Pickling in Japan

Pickles in Japan can encompass a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, and even seafood that are preserved in a mixture of salt, vinegar, and other seasonings. “Shaki shaki” (シャキシャキ) is an onomatopoeic term that describes the crisp and crunchy texture of fresh vegetables and is a testament to the satisfying crunch of a well-made pickle. The next time you enjoy a perfect pickle, remember to say “shaki shaki“!

In Japanese cuisine, pickles are categorized into several types, each with its own distinct preparation method and flavor profile. Here are the most common ones:

  • Salty Pickles (Shiozuke): These pickles are preserved in salt and often include vegetables like cucumbers, radishes, and eggplants. The salt draws out excess moisture, leaving the vegetables with a pleasing crunch. The salty and savory notes make them a perfect accompaniment to rice.
  • Sweet Pickles (Amazuzuke): As the name suggests, these pickles are sweet and tangy. They are often made using sugar, vinegar, and soy sauce, resulting in a delightful contrast of flavors. Daikon radish and ginger are commonly used for amazuzuke.

Red lacquer tray with a small plate with pickled plums

  • Sour Pickles (Suzuke): These pickles are typically preserved in vinegar, which imparts a zesty and tangy flavor. One well-known example is “umeboshi,” or pickled plums, which have a strong sour taste and are used sparingly due to their intensity.
  • Fermented Pickles (Nukazuke): Nukazuke involves fermenting vegetables in a rice bran mixture known as “nuka.” This method imparts a complex umami flavor and is often used for veggies like cucumbers and radishes. The fermentation process can take several weeks, resulting in a unique depth of flavor.

Cultural Significance

Top view of four plate filled with various side dishes and picklesBeyond their culinary appeal, pickles hold cultural significance in Japan. They are a symbol of preservation and resourcefulness, as pickling allowed people to enjoy vegetables year-round, even in the absence of fresh produce. Additionally, pickles are often associated with celebrations and rituals, such as the Japanese New Year’s tradition of eating “osechi ryori,” a special assortment of dishes that includes various types of pickles.

Health Benefits of Pickles

In addition to being delicious, Japanese pickles also offer a range of health benefits. Many types of pickles are low in calories and fat, and the fermentation process involved in some pickles, such as nukazuke and some kimchi varieties, promotes the growth of probiotics—beneficial bacteria that support gut health and digestion. These probiotics contribute to a balanced gut microbiome, potentially aiding immune function and nutrient absorption.

Furthermore, pickled vegetables often retain the nutritional value of the vegetables used, including vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. Pickled daikon radish is a good source of vitamin C, while pickled cucumbers provide essential nutrients like potassium and vitamin K. Antioxidants in certain pickles may also help combat oxidative stress in the body. When enjoyed as part of a well-rounded diet, Japanese pickles can be a flavorful and nutritious choice that supports overall well-being.

Exploring the Diversity of Japanese Pickles

White rectangular plate with a variety of Japanese pickles

Japan’s regional diversity is reflected in its pickles, with each area boasting its own unique specialties. For example, Kyoto is known for its “senmai-zuke,” thinly sliced pickled vegetables, while Hiroshima is famous for “fukujinzuke,” a spicy pickle blend served with okonomiyaki. The next time you enjoy a Japanese meal, pay attention to the pickles on your plate – they are not just side dishes but a vibrant expression of tradition and taste.

Whether you’re a fan of salty, sweet, sour, or fermented flavors, there’s a pickle for everyone to love in Japanese cuisine! Have you tried Japanese pickles before? Where and how have you tried them? Share your thoughts, comments, and questions with us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram! #Zojirushi #ZoFan Continue reading

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.


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!