We are in the season of young ginger. Tender, mildly spicy and gorgeous to look at, the creamy hands are making their way to Asian markets. I saw super beautiful ones in Oakland Chinatown last week but refrained from buying because I was bound for the banh mi photo shoot. I said to myself, “The next time you see young ginger, buy it to pickle.” Yesterday I surprisingly found the ginger at my local hippie-dippy market. It was organically grown, from Hawaii. The cashier had no idea what it was.
In Asian vernacular, there’s young and old ginger. The young stuff has paper bits of translucent skin whereas the mature ginger is covered by tan, dry skin. Most of the year, we’re all cooking with old ginger, whose bite punches up many foods and warms our bodies. Young ginger can be eaten raw – I’ve had Thai fermented sausage with raw ginger, which complements the sausage flavor and functions as an antibacterial.
But there’s only so much young ginger I can eat. My main method of using it is by pickling it Japanese style for what most of us recognize as sushi ginger (gari in Japanese). I enjoy it with sushi (obvious) but also mixed into sushi rice and stuffed into fried tofu pockets. It's a terrific side to grilled oily fish such as salmon or mackerel.
I got the enhanced iBooks version that came with audio pronunciations of the recipe titles and ingredients, which is helpful if you’re not versed in Japanese food terms. Otherwise, the regular ebook of Asian Pickles: Japan sold online will be fine.
Karen lived in the Japan in the 1990s and writes with an infectious verve. I bought two hands of ginger, about 1.5 times the amount she called for so I simply did the math for the recipe below. Some things to note:
- If you can’t find young ginger, use regular old ginger but peel it. During the blanching, let the ginger sit in the hot water for 45 to 60 seconds instead of the 20 seconds called for below.
- Homemade pickled ginger may turn a blushing pink but not the torrid pink of storebought pickled ginger, which may have a little help from dye.
- Use a mandoline or super sharp knife to cut the ginger. You need very thin pieces. I put my mandoline in a square baking pan (see photo above) to keep it in place and safely use it.
- Don’t throw away the pickling brine. It’s delicious.
- The dried kelp is my addition, a little umami trick I learned from Japanese food authority Elizabeth Andoh.
Karen’s recipes are fun, written without the burden of bowing to tradition. As a non-native, she gives readers an undaunted take at Asian foodways, opening the door as if to say, “What have you been waiting for? Don’t be silly. Just dive in. I have.” You can’t lose with a $2.99 investment. Along with the Japan e-booklet, there’s also an Indian, Korean, and Chinese one.
Japanese Pickled Ginger
Yield: About 1 1/2 cups
- 9 to 10 ounces (270–300 g) young ginger
- 6 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 9 tablespoons unseasoned Japanese rice vinegar
- 2 squares of dried kombu (kelp), each about the size of your thumbnail (optional)
- Use an inverted spoon to scrape off the thin, paper bits from the ginger. Use a mandoline or very sharp knife to cut the ginger across the grain into super thin pieces. They should be nearly see-through.
- Toss the ginger with the 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar and salt. Set aside for 30 minutes to reduce its harshness.
- Meanwhile, partially fill a small saucepan with water. Ready a fine-mesh strainer and 2-cup (.5 liter) glass jar. In another saucepan, combine the remaining 6 tablespoons sugar, vinega,r and kombu (if using). Set this stuff aside near the stove.
- About 10 minutes before the ginger finishes mellowing out, start the water pot going on the stove. When the ginger is done, add it all to the boiling water, stir and blanch for 20 seconds to further reduce the harshness. Drain in the mesh strainer but don’t rinse. Shake a few times to expel water, then put into the glass container.
- Bring the mixture of sugar and vinegar to a boil, give things a stir to ensure the sugar has dissolved. Then pour into the jar of ginger. Push down with chopsticks or a spoon to submerge. Cool, uncovered, then cap and refrigerate. Depending on the ginger, it may be ready to eat in 1 to 3 days. Taste and see. Store refrigerated for months.
Adapted from Karen Solomon’s Asian Pickles: Japan (ebook edition, Ten Speed Press, 2012)