Miso Soup for the Soul: Obaachan’s Pickles
by Lorene Oikawa
My cousin recently visited the Kootenays and sent me some photos from Slocan. My grandparents’ house is long gone, but I could picture the little pink house with the huge garden from my many visits when I was a child. At the time, I did not know about the forced uprooting, dispossession, and internment that my family and 22,000 Japanese Canadians endured.
My maternal side of the family had originally settled in Cumberland in the north part of Vancouver Island in the 1800s. In 1942, they were forcibly moved to Hastings Park in Vancouver and then shipped to the interior of BC. They stayed in the camps in Bayfarm and Popoff and then Slocan City. When the government representative told my grandfather to “go back to Japan” or move east of the Rockies, my grandfather refused. He said he was born in Canada and he remained in Slocan until he died.
When I was a child, I just knew it was a long trip by car and shorter by plane to get to my grandparents’ house in a tiny village. And when I arrived I would be with my grandparents and get treated to my Obaachan’s cooking and baking.
My Obaachan (grandmother) was an amazing cook and baker. My childhood memories are of lemon meringue pie with fluffy high meringue, udon (Japanese noodles made from scratch), Japanese (Cumberland) chow mein, inari sushi (vinegared rice with vegetables in deep fried tofu pockets), futomaki sushi, matsutake rice (with fresh pine mushrooms my grandfather picked from a secret location in the forest), three types of manju (steamed, baked, and mochi filled with sweet bean paste) made for Girl’s Day and New Year’s Day.
I am lucky to have easy access to Japanese food products at Japanese grocery stores in the Metro Vancouver area. My Obaachan did not have that easy access and she made pretty much everything I buy now. My mom said that in Cumberland, my obaachan even collected seaweed to make nori. She also made her own tofu, fishcake, noodles, and pickles.
One feature of the house in Slocan was a root cellar. There was a big heavy door that had to be lifted up and then stairs going down. When the door was opened, a musty smell emanated from the dark.
I remember the first time following Obaachan into the root cellar. It was cooler and dark. I could see different containers and jars of preserved vegetables and fruit. Obaachan was a tiny woman, but very strong. She easily lifted a heavy rock off the top of one container. She pulled cucumbers out of brown mash, I think rice bran. I recognized her home-grown cucumbers. She grew Japanese cucumbers which were like English cucumbers but a lot smaller and curved. I called it tsukemono, which actually includes all Japanese pickles.
As a yonsei, fourth generation Japanese Canadian, I don’t speak Japanese and only picked up some terms and phrases. The tsukemono was delicious, crisp, tangy, and I would greedily eat the pickles without rice. Obachan made an assortment of Japanese pickles. Bright yellow slices of pickled daikon (Japanese radish), salty and sweet, called takuan, and fukujinzuke, a mix of pickled vegetables (including Japanese eggplant she grew) which was sort of like chutney. When I wasn’t feeling well, she gave me a cup of hot water with umeboshi, a pickled red plum, a sour salty drink that I still use as my go-to elixir
One regret I have is that I didn’t pay close attention and record how my obaachan made pickles or any of her dishes. Recently, I decided to try to make pickles and did an internet search of recipes. There are a lot of recipes. I reviewed the combinations and decided to try three types of pickles using hakurei (kabu). I was able to get some at a farmer’s market. Hakurei is called Japanese turnip, but it has a milder taste like radish and it can be eaten raw.
Shiozuke uses salt brine. Since hakurei is a dense vegetable I tried a 10% salt brine to make shiozuke, but I found it too salty for my taste so I would reduce the salt. Also, you need to find a container that you can add your vegetables, cover with the brine and then place a dish with a weight to hold the vegetables down. I used a pyrex container with pie weights in a dish on top
Amazuzuke uses rice vinegar and sugar. I think the ideal ratio is 1 rice vinegar to .5 sugar. I tried to cut down the sugar, but found it too vinegary. It’s the same technique, weighing down the vegetables in the solution.
Misozuke uses miso. This is closest to what my Obaachan made with the rice bran. I used an empty glass jar and mixed a ratio of 1 miso to .25 mirin, and added pieces of hakurei and cucumber slices.
All three were actually quick processes and you can have pickles within three days. It’s inspired me to try making more pickles.
When my mom died, it increased the sense of loss and regret. Recreating some of my family food traditions is comforting, restoring a connection to family and my ancestors.