Photo: Alanna Hale
Japanese cuisine is perhaps my favorite, or at least certainly in my top three. If I were stranded on a desert island, I’d be just fine so long as there was ample seafood, rice paddies, and someone to turn it all into perfect sushi every day. Hands down our favorite sushi place in the city is ICHI Sushi, and its izakaya bar, NI, in the back. We’ve been fans since their early days, occupying a tiny and fairly charmless space that housed our previous favorite, Yo’s Sushi Club, on a nondescript corner of Mission Street in Bernal Heights.
The current space is airy and slick. As you enter the hallway covered with an Erik Marinovich mural outlining the practice of eating sushi, the staff collectively belts out an enthusiastic “Irasshaimase!”
You’ll more often find us in the back at NI, ordering their deservedly famous yuzu chicken wings and whatever vegetable they’re turning into a goma ae with black sesame. It used to be that there was no sushi at NI, as the chefs at the front work at capacity to keep the sushi bar fed, but lately they’ve been offering rolls from the back kitchen, which they will also make as hand rolls. And we always, always order the tsukemono, or assorted pickles.
When ICHI was still at the old space, I once asked chef Erik Aplin whether they were doing any tsukemono; they didn’t list it on the menu. He gave me a knowing look, and promptly poked into the fridges. Moments later, he presented a dish with a small selection of pickles. They were just beginning to really delve into tsukemono, and at that time weren’t ready to list it on the menu. I don’t remember everything on the plate, but I’ll never forget a small dollop of creamy white stuff that could have passed as some kind of cheese. It was tofu that had been fermented in miso, and I had never had anything like it before, or since.
Now Chef de Cuisine at ICHI, Aplin has expanded the tsukemono program. Typically they’ll have around six different varieties on their plate at any given time, with more in the works. He’ll employ multiple methods of pickling: Shoyuzuke, brined in soy sauce and vinegar; kasuzake, which uses the lees from sake production; misozuke, fermented in miso paste; and they’ve even done some work with the finicky nukazuke, where vegetables are buried in a bed of rice bran with live cultures. Some pickles can be made in mere hours; others take weeks or even months. Being something of a pickle maniac, I talked to Aplin about the tsukemono program.
“If I go to a Japanese restaurant I always order the tsukemono plate. About half the time it’s just store-bought pickles,” he said. “That’s not exciting.” Even working at other, prestigious restaurants, tsukemono wasn’t the primary focus. While at Morimoto in Napa, he made some amazu, sweet vinegar pickles, but little more ambitious than that.
Aplin and his team are largely self-trained on the art of Japanese pickling. “Most of what we do now are just trial and error, and a lot of research. They’re all rooted in Japanese cuisine, but have our American flair to them. Most tsukemono are traditionally lighter in flavor than what we put forth. They have the ICHI stamp on them.”
Photo: Erin Archuleta
The pickles are more than just palate ticklers; they’re also an efficient way of using what would otherwise be thrown away. Currently on the tsukemono plate you’re likely to find daikon skins marinated in soy, as well as a treatment of the leafy greens. “We go through a lot of daikon at ICHI,” says Aplin. “This is a great way to use all of it.” There’s also daikon in sake lees, a process that can take a year; the resulting pickle has a slightly boozy kick. They also employ a popular brine called sanbaizu, a blend of soy sauce, mirin and rice wine vinegar. They use it on daikon, radishes, turnips and sea grapes, a kind of seaweed with a caviar-like texture. “People love them,” effuses co-owner Erin Archuleta. “People will eat the pickles and then be all, What was that?” If you want to make your own sanbaizu tsukemono, the recipe is here.
Nukazuke is not currently on the menu. If you’ve ever tried to make it, you’ll understand. The nukadoko, the bed of cultured rice bran, is a capricious thing, and can go off easily. It requires constant maintenance. “Nuka is like a child. You need to attend to it every day, sometimes twice a day, adding or extracting water. It’s always changing. If your nuka is sick, your pickle is not going to taste good. When the nukadoko is healthy, it’s a really nice flavor. When it’s bad, you just get a sourness, almost a blue cheese funk.”
When it does work, nuka is easy. You just put vegetables like cucumbers or turnips in, and they ferment overnight, or in even less time. Some things work better than others though. Aplin notes that the team at Cultured Pickle Shop in Berkeley tried putting a trumpet mushroom in their nuka, and the next day it was just gone.
Aplin’s not done trying, though. “One of our chefs just got back from Japan, and brought back a nuka starter from his family. It’s been in the family for generations. We’re trying to get him to pass it on to us. But I think he feels like it’s like his child.”
So what about that fermented tofu? “It’s firm tofu that’s pressed, then packed with miso plus different flavoring agents like kombu, green tea, and chilies for at least 3 weeks, but it breaks down more over time. It becomes spreadable around six months.” It still haunts me.