Fickle Pickles: Only One Man Can Touch Daikaya’s Fermented Vegetables
It's labeled simply "the stinky stuff" in the kitchen of Daikaya.
The fermented rice husk paste pickles cucumbers and daikon to create a traditional Japanese specialty called nukazuke on the restaurant's upstairs izakaya menu. Only one person, sous chef Michael Turner, is allowed to touch the mixture with his bare hands. If anyone else's skin interacts with it, the whole batch will be ruined.
Co-owner Daisuke Utagawa says there's a Japanese saying: "Nukazuke is something grandma should make." The reason for that, he says, is that old people's hands have less oil, too much of which can cause the rice husk to over-ferment. "Nukazuke should be touched by only one person because everybody has their own different kind of native bacteria, if you will," he says. If more people touch it, Utagawa says it ferments too much and goes rotten.
The fermented paste takes about two weeks to stabilize, and additional rice husk is added to the mother batch as needed. Utagawa says he's seen some nukazuke that is 50 years old. The stuff gets more complex over time.
The nukazuke must be turned by hand once a day. If Turner is not there to do it, then others must use gloves. If it's warm outside, Utagawa says the vegetables only take from morning to afternoon to pickle. In the winter, they typically need to sit overnight. "It's a living and breathing thing, literally, so it's very, very delicate," Utagawa says. "To keep it consistent is one of the most difficult things to do."
Utagawa says good nukazuke should retain the natural flavor of the vegetables while drawing out a fragrant, umami flavor and extra crunchiness. His grandmother used to make the specialty when he was growing up, but nowadays, Utagawa says it's becoming a lost art because of the work involved.
Nukazuke is one of the three types of pickled vegetables on Daikaya's menu (one for $2 or all three for $5). There's also hakusai, napa cabbage fermented in its own juices with lemon rind or whole chilies, and takuan, a type of yellow pickled daikon which Daikaya imports from Japan. The reason they don't make it themselves, Utagawa explains, is that takuan takes two to three years to properly ferment. Part of the recipe calls for three full days of sunshine in a row.
Photo by Jessica Sidman