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Dec 8, 2008 11:16 AM

tsukemono guilt

At a Japanese place the other day I ordered tsukemono and got what I took to be housemade pickles (see photo). They constituted more like a dressed salad of nearly raw veggies than the pickles I'm used to—you know, those fluorescent, super-pungent doodads.

I'm thinking the ones I *like* are therefore actually prepackaged & I should hang my head for preferring them (while secretly running out to the nearest Asian market to buy my own stash), but can anyone tell me for sure? Thanks!

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  1. Hmm- that doesn't seem to be correct to me. I've seen the salad variety of pickles in the US, and never the real pungent variety. I never saw the salad variety in Japan advertised as tsukemono; it was always the brilliant colored stuff you mentioned. My guess is that the real tsukemono doesn't go over all that well here in the US.

    1. Not sure what you're asking, but tsukemono is just a catch-all term for pickles. It's pretty general. There are all sorts. Picture looks like typical tsukemono from vinegar or salt brine. I think pickled red radishes are a great idea actually.

      Japanese and some Asian markets will have sections with maybe a few dozen different packaged versions. We buy the packaged brine, but then make tsukemono at home with fresh vegetables.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Silverjay

        That's weird...until now I've *never* seen tsukemono like that. In Boston, I always saw it like this:

        Very bright, and very pickled—salty-sour-sweet. What I had was, again, more like a marinated, nearly raw salad.

        1. re: tatamagouche

          Here in Hawaii there is obviously a very extensive Japanese presence. At the Japanese markets & Sushi joints around time you can find dozens of type of Tsukemono ranging from the rawish salad you had... to flourescent yellow almost unbearably salty stuff you prefer. My in laws went to Japan not long ago during the cold season and every meal they had was served with some type of pickled vegetable (no fresh vegetables) including breakfast etc.,.

      2. Shall I add to your guilt? Sorry in advance! Many of the bright, crunchy types of tsukemono that you like are 'fluorescent' due to artificial colors. Some types also have MSG. Of course, if you only eat a few at a time, only on occasions, your intake of 'nasties' will be minimal. And I agree that there is a satisfying salty goodness to them. But if you're worried about that sort of thing, fresh-made tsukemono like the kind you had at the restaurant is a safer bet.

        I only mention this because so many people incorrectly think that Japanese food is healthy. Working for a Japanese food company, I now know that's not entirely true...

        13 Replies
        1. re: WTBD

          Well, my guilt's less nutritional than aesthetic...but thanks for adding to it anyway! :)

          Oh, MSG, such a seducer...

          1. re: tatamagouche

            Many people in Japan sprinkle Ajinomoto (pure MSG) on their tsukemono.

            1. re: Silverjay

              As many other threads mention, MSG isn't necessarily bad. Think of all the umami we'd miss out on without MSG: parmesan, kombu, mushrooms, meat.....

              Personally I'm more bothered about the artificial colours on an intellectual level, but that doesn't stop me from consuming products that I know will stain my tongue!

              Tatamagouche: how's your secret pre-packaged stash coming along?

              1. re: WTBD

                If MSG isn't bad and neither are artificial colors, then what exactly are the "nasties" you're talking about and why are fresh-made tsukemono a "safer bet"?

                It seems like the naturally high salt content of tsukemono should much more of a concern than the MSG.

                1. re: Robb S

                  OK, fair question.

                  MSG - pro and con - has been covered on these boards, so I'll leave that part of the discussion aside.

                  Re: salt
                  Yes, tsukemono can have a high salt content that would be a worry for some people.

                  Re: 'nasties'
                  Some people consider artificial colors/flavors/preservatives to be unhealthy and try to avoid them. There have been studies in different countries to see if they contribute to health problems - Europe has spent the last few years looking for evidence that certain artificial colors and preservatives contribute to hyperactivity in children, for example. The UK is currently recommending a 'voluntary ban' on certain colors and preservatives, particularly in food marketed at children.


                  Here in the UK, artificial colors and preservatives are often referred to as 'nasties' - as in 'our natural yogurt contains no nasties!'

                  In my post, I was trying to let tatamagouche know that the 'fluorescent' colors in some tsukemono are due to these 'nasties.' Some people would be put off by that. Some people don't care. Some people know about it, but consider it a low enough risk not to avoid foods with 'nasties' altogether. I'm in the 3rd group.

                  My job entails relabelling Japanese products for the British market, so I have become increasingly aware of the 'nasties' in the food we sell. Obviously, I like promoting Japanese food, but I think that people should be aware of what they're eating. Like I said, I didn't want to add to anyone's guilt... just share information. If tatamagouche had been avoiding artificial colors, eating fluorescent tsukemono could negate all that hard work.

                  1. re: WTBD

                    Thanks for the update on artificial colors. I wonder if any of the food colorings referred to in that report are actually used in Japanese tsukemono, and if so, how much tsukemono you'd have to eat in order to ingest 1mg of tartrazine or whatever. Anyway, I'm a bit dubious about food advertisers spreading FUD by making vague claims about "nasties" that haven't been proven harmful. Especially when there's so much proven bad stuff in processed food like high-fructose corn syrup, transfats, excessive salt, etc.

                    Anyway, it sounds like you have an interesting job!

                    1. re: Robb S

                      I think E122 is the only color I haven't seen in any of the products - tsukemono included - that my company imports. Many of the products we carry have E102, E104, E110, E124 and/or E129, as well as other colors (caramel, paprika, beta-carotene, etc) and additives. If we go along with the voluntary ban, we'll lose a lot of our key items! But like you said, you'd have to eat bucket-loads before you turned into a chemical mutant. Avoid 'nasties' if you want to, but the amounts in tsukemono probably won't hurt you much.

                      I agree with you about being dubious regarding some of these reports. If nothing else, look at your toothpaste. It probably has E110 in it. (By the way, apologies for only posting the European names of these colors... E102 = FD&C Yellow #5 in the USA, E110 = FD&C Yellow #6. I'll let you look up the rest on the interwebs.)

                      Ah, ubiquitous HFCS. Yes, some tsukemono has it, too! Have you started reading the labels on your food yet? I try not to read labels outside of my professional life. I don't wanna know :)

                      1. re: WTBD

                        Ha, I guess my misspelling of "colour" branded me as a non-European. I'm actually in Japan, and I do read my food labels, although it's a bit harder here. I have figured out the characters for HFCS though, and I try to avoid it.

                        Perhaps this all explains my hyperactivity whenever I eat tsukemono - I thought I was just excited by the delicious flavor....

                        1. re: Robb S

                          Ha ha, no worries. I'm an American-Brit, so my English has become increasingly bilingual... Sometimes remember the 'u' in colour, sometimes leave it out as a deliberate act of defiance.

                          Hope you're enjoying Japan. I lived in Nagano for 4 yrs and loved every minute of it, fluorescent tsukemono and all!

          2. re: WTBD

            Japanese food is healthy if, like me, one cooks all at home. I use little oil, lots of veggies (including a lot that is uncooked and dressed like the namasu / salad in the photo) and fish, tofu and seaweeds, miso, don't use Aji-no-moto, use little meat, and serve with plain steamed rice. Dessert is most often some form of fruit - usually just fresh chilled.

            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

              You're going to out live Yoda if you continue on that kind of diet.

              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                The same can be said of all food. Any cuisine can be modified if cooked at home to make it healthier than what is commonly available.

                1. re: Orchid64

                  Ha! I grew up in a time that home cooked was what was commonly available. Ol &^*&(*()& geezer, I know.

            2. As others have said, tsukemono ranges from your "homemade" pickles pictured to many intensely colored splendors. I make a lot of tsukemono and love store bought. I'd guess I eat about 10 homemade (that is more like store bought than the namasu pictured) to 1 neon.

              5 Replies
                1. re: tatamagouche

                  Namasu is a quick pickle or salad of thinly sliced raw vegetables dressed with vinegar, sugar, and salt--just like in your photo.

                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                    Ah! So is namasu therefore a type of tsukemono, or is tsukemono strictly reserved for truer pickles?

                    1. re: tatamagouche

                      Tsukemono just means pickled. Could be with vinegar, could be with rice bran, could be with sake lees, could be with miso or shoyu.

                      Namasu is a type of sunomono. Means specifically with vinegar- su (酢). All a subset of tsukemono.