LONDON – A prominent Danish gastrophysicist has made a bold claim: He believes he can get children to not only eat broccoli but enjoy it too.
Having spent the last decade researching and writing on Japanese cuisine, professor Ole G. Mouritsen has turned his attention to tsukemono (Japanese pickles), and believes they are the key to getting children (and some adults) to embrace vegetables.
Tsukemono — vegetables, fruit or flowers that have been preserved in a pickling ingredient such as soy sauce, sake or vinegar — are a mainstay of the traditional Japanese meal. There are believed to be around 4,000 varieties in Japan.
Japan has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world. Mouritsen emphasizes that while tsukemono is neither the sole reason for this nor the sole answer to obesity issues in countries like the United States or Britain, “it is one of the suggestions from Japanese cuisine to make vegetables more interesting and more accessible.”
“I always get scolded when I say this, but there’s a reason why people have problems eating vegetables and that is because they’re not tasty enough,” said Mouritsen, a physicist who works on the science of gastronomy and cooking, a field known as gastrophysics.
At a recent event hosted by the Japan Foundation in London, Mouritsen talked about the science and history of tsukemono.
According to Mouritsen, pickling infuses vegetables with umami (a savory taste) and creates mouthfeel, both of which are generally accepted to be essential to the enjoyment of food.
An added bonus is that some preservatives like shio kōji — a seasoning made from salt and rice treated with mold spores — convert carbohydrates into sugar, making the vegetables sweeter, less bitter and much more acceptable to younger palates.
Individual vegetable consumption thus increases, making people’s diets healthier, Mouritsen suggests.
Mouritsen was first introduced to Japanese food by a colleague when living and working in Vancouver, British Columbia, as a visiting professor in the early 1980s. He was immediately captivated, and he has since visited Japan many times for research.
“What really intrigued me was eating at a counter. You can see the craft and the skills; there’s a deep respect for the raw ingredients and an understanding of flavor,” he said. “What a sushi chef would do, (present a piece of sushi) in his hand, put it in front of you — I think this is something very fundamental within human food culture.”
This interest has led him to write books on sushi, seaweed, umami and mouthfeel, and he was appointed a “goodwill ambassador” of Japanese cuisine by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 2016.
A keen cook himself, Mouritsen says: “I never use a recipe. What I enjoy about cooking is that if you know a few basic things you can always make something that is delicious and is a good dish.”
His top tip for making tsukemono is to dry the vegetables destined for pickling until they look tired and boring. They will then absorb water and flavor during the marinating process, resulting in a delicious, crunchy taste.
“You just take whatever vegetables you like and cut them in small pieces — broccoli, radish, cabbage — put them in a plastic bag, add a teaspoon of shio kōji, shake it, put it in the fridge, and then just after an hour it’s already changed,” he said. “Sometimes you may want to keep it there for the next day or two days later, and it gets more and more flavorful.”
Mouritsen’s latest book, co-authored with chef Klavs Styrbaek, is about the science and history of tsukemono, as well as its aesthetics and production techniques. The book, titled “Tsukemono,” is currently only available in Danish but is being translated into English for release at a later date.