Food & Drink | CULINARY TOOLBOX

'Nukadoko': The kitchen helper with a mind of its own

by Melinda Joe

For years, I’d resisted the urge to start my own nuka-pickle pot.

Although a great fan of nukazuke, those idiosyncratically earthy pickles fermented in rice-bran paste, I had concluded that the task of caring for the pickling medium was a responsibility best left to others. The nukadoko (pickling bed) is a living organism, one that requires constant monitoring to guard against spoilage. It must be aerated by hand daily to discourage mold, topped up with a mixture of fresh rice bran and salt once a month, and used — frequently — to maintain a careful balance of microbes. For someone cursed with a black thumb (cacti have perished on my watch), the challenges are considerable.

My friend, fellow food writer Hiroko Sasaki, had thrust me into the world of home fermentation when she returned from a research trip to Fukuoka with a batch of nukadoko starter for me. She’d traveled there to interview Chizuka Shimoda, whose shop, Chizuka, has been keeping the nukazuke tradition alive by producing picking beds inoculated with “mother” starters that have been passed down through the generations for the last 300 years. Shimoda keeps around 25 batches of pickling paste going at a time by adding new rice bran to older starters in a Solera-like system of maturation.

As Hiroko passed me the package of nukadoko, she explained that I should use it to make my own pickling bed fairly soon, before the acid levels got too high. After reminding me of the daily attention I’d need to give my new pickle-pot baby, she half-jokingly added, “Don’t kill it.”

The first thing I had to do was to buy an appropriate vessel. Traditionally, large ceramic jars or lidded wooden tubs are used for making nukazuke, but any non-reactive container, such as glass, will do.

I chose an enamel-lined pot fitted with a lid from home-wares department store Tokyu Hands and then diligently mixed the nukadoko according to the directions it came with (1 kg nukadoko, 1 kg fresh rice bran, 70 g salt and 1.3 liters konbu dashi [kelp broth]) — although I substituted a little beer for some of the liquid to speed fermentation. Next, I added a mandarin peel, some dried chilies and a couple of cloves of garlic. Taking care to squeeze as much air out of the paste as possible, I patted it down and waited.

After a few days, I began to fret, because nothing much seemed to be happening. Chizuka has a free consultation service, where Shimoda will examine your pickling bed and then advise you on how to proceed. However, Fukuoka is a long way from Tokyo, so I called Hiroko instead.

She gave me some tips: Add vegetable scraps to introduce healthy bacteria; avoid over-mixing to limit the exposure of largely anaerobic lactic acid bacteria to oxygen; and taste the nukadoko weekly to check its development. Mostly, though, she told me not to worry.

“That nukadoko is 300 years old, so it should survive,” she said. “Even if you kill it, you can buy another batch and try again.” My inner consumerist was reassured.

nuka-chizuka.com/index.html Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.