I like manga. I like food. Fortunately, there are a lot of manga that feature food! And thus, my summer plans are complete. To kick off the summer months, I decided to make some pickles. Cool, spicy-sweet summer pickles to complement the bright, hot, sunny days. I believe in the “beat the heat with more heat” philosophy.
Back in April, I reviewed Barakamon by Satsuki Yoshino, in which Tokyo calligrapher Seishuu Handa is shipped off to an island in the Gotou Archipelago off the coast of Kyūshū, Japan’s southernmost large island. One of my favorite aspects of the manga was Yoshino’s focus on the regional cuisine, and I was delighted to discover that Volume 2 holds a recipe for konomon (Japanese style pickles). Seriously, I was so excited. The konomon I ate in Japan were amazing and — also important to me — my wife loves them and has been craving them since she left Kyūshū in 2005. It’s not easy to find imported Japanese pickles without preservatives, and they’re pretty expensive when you can find them.
But now, thanks to Barakamon, I can make my own!
Here’s what the recipe calls for:
- 3 kg (about 6 lbs) of daikon radish
- 3 and 3/4 c. sugar
- 3/4 c. vinegar
- 3/4 c. light soy sauce (aka usukuchi soy sauce)
- Whole dried cayenne (or santaka) peppers to taste
I feel incredibly fortunate that my neighborhood grocery store is Uwajimaya, an Asian food specialty store. I love Uwajimaya a lot, and I felt very protective when one of the contestants on Top Chef: Seattle complained about the store. Hmph!
Naturally, then, I started my pickle adventure at Uwajimaya.
Once there, my feet took me right to the huge pile of daikon. I looked them over and chose a promising 3-pound candidate. I decided to go with 3 pounds of daikon instead of 6, as I wasn’t sure I’d be able to eat 6 pounds of daikon radishes. (I know differently now, which means I’ll just have to go back for another 3-pound radish in the near future.)
I wasn’t able to find dried cayenne peppers, but I did find dried santaka peppers. The Internet tells me they’re from Japan, which I could guess from the name, and that their heat is about the same as cayenne, so I reasoned they would be a good substitute. I snagged rice vinegar and a pound of sugar before spending about 10 minutes perusing the massive soy sauce collection in an attempt to locate “light soy sauce,” not to be confused with low-sodium or fat-free soy sauce. I met with success when I started looking for usukuchi soy sauce instead. When I got home, I set out all of the ingredients along with my instruction manual.
First step: peel and chop the daikon into approximately even pieces. This is the point at which I dearly wished for a mandoline (the slicing kind, not the musical kind). My knife skills have definite need for improvement. At long last, though, I made it: quarter round slices of daikon, check!
Now, the recipe calls for them to be air dried in a little basket or a food drying shed. I don’t have a shed, and I didn’t think they’d do well hanging in my apartment, so I pulled out the good ole dehydrator and arranged them all individually. The slices took up all five trays, which made me glad I’d gone for 3 pounds instead of 6! I turned the dehydrator to 135°F/57°C and let ‘er go.
While the daikon were dehydrating away, I prepped the brine because it needs to cool before being combined with the daikon. I put the entire pound of sugar (a bit over 3 cups) into a saucepan along with 3/4 cup rice vinegar and 3/4 cup usukuchi soy sauce. Note that I didn’t halve the proportions of the brine as I did with the daikon, because I figured if this turned out well I’d just make another batch. I cooked it over medium-low heat until the sugar dissolved and it looked like a thin caramel sauce. After that, I pulled it off the heat and set it to the side to cool.
Back to the dehydrating daikon! I let the dehydrator do its thing for an hour and then returned to check on them. Barakamon doesn’t describe exactly how dry is dry enough, so I checked often. When I thought they were close, I turned to my wife and asked if, based on her recollection, these were right. “Not quite,” she said. “They need to be less moist in the middle and should have a nice audible snap when you bite into them.” Ahh yes, that snap! That’s what I was looking for. Other indicators of “dry enough” are wrinkly edges, an opaque exterior on each slice, and a milder flavor.
To cut to the chase, it ended up taking 90 minutes for the daikon on the top tray and along the edges, at which point I pulled those out and consolidated the remainder onto fewer trays. I let the rest stay in the dehydrator for another 45 minutes and then, voila! They were ready to be combined with the brine.
I placed all of the daikon in my little pickle pot along with two whole santaka peppers (I like spice, but I’m not yet brave with it), and then put it in the refrigerator.
And waited. FOR TWO WHOLE DAYS.
But the wait was worth it. They’re done, and they’re crisp and crunchy and tasty. The one thing I’ll do differently next time is the spice level, because two pepper pods did not make them as spicy as I would like. A friend also recommended putting the peppers in with the brine as it’s heating up, and that makes complete sense to me. Something tells me I’ll be making another batch soon …