Japanese Pickles (Tsukemono): Hakata-Style Cabbage Pickle

I’ve been wanting a Japanese pickle press for a while, but all of the ones I’ve seen have been pretty big and I feared they’d take up too much room in my refrigerator and make far more pickles than two people could reasonably eat. I probably could never make too many traditional dill pickles for Mark to consume, but I generally intend tsukemono to accompany a single meal and only need two servings at a time. So when I saw a small press at Soko Hardware in San Francisco’s Japantown last weekend, I snatched it up. I also picked up a tsukemono recipe book, Easy Japanese Pickling in Five Minutes to One Day. This book is not completely vegan, but it is mostly so.

Many Japanese pickles are made by extracting excess water from veggies by applying weights to them. The plastic pickle presses you can find in Japanese markets (or online) work by applying pressure in the form of a spring that clamps a lid down onto the pickles. A special press is not at all necessary, however. In fact, this particular book describes how not to use a press. Instead, it suggests placing the pickle ingredients into a bowl, covering with plastic wrap, and using cans or other weights to press the pickles.

I chose a simple pickle (most of them, in fact, are quite simple) last night, using my new press instead of the cans-in-a-dish method recommended by the book. The pickle press simply eliminates a little extra work (and plastic wrap, which I try to avoid) and also provides easy storage of leftovers.

Nakata-Style Cabbage Pickle

400 grams cabbage (check out that “baby” cabbage I got at Wegmans! It weighed 412 grams: perfect!)
2 tsp salt
2-3 Tbsp water
1/2 carrot, julienned
30 shiso leaves (I used fewer, but was very glad to be able to trim my rampant shiso plant, which for some reason is not only not dead, but thriving)

Core the cabbage.

In the words of the book, “Slice to fit a small rectangular container.” Their pickles ended up retaining layers, looking a bit like a cabbagy petit-four, but I made mine “scattered”, much like the sushi I served it with. So basically I just chopped the cabbage into bite-sized pieces:

Place the cabbage in a bowl and sprinkle with the salt and water. Mix together using your hands. Let sit for 15-20 minutes to soften.

Meanwhile, julienne the carrot and cut the shiso leaves into bit-sized pieces (I used kitchen shears). When the cabbage is ready, squeeze it dry, then layer in a pickle press (or a rectangular container), alternating with rows of shiso and carrot.

If using a pickle press, put the lid on and tighten the screw as much as possible:

If you don’t have a pickle press, cover the vegetables with plastic wrap, place a small plate or bowl over them, then put a can or other weight onto the plate or bowl.

Let the pickle stand for 30 minutes. Makes six servings.

This was a nice, light, “clean”-tasting accompaniment to our meal, even if it didn’t look as pretty as the picture in the book.


  1. Maureen Said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 11:55 am

    Mmm, it looks so fresh and healthy. What a nice alternative to the side garden salad!

  2. tofufreak Said,

    September 28, 2008 @ 6:23 pm

    yum! i love japanese picked stuff, but have never attempted making it. yours looks really good: light and refreshing!

  3. Mom Said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 10:12 am

    Squashing the guts out of vegetables is considered making pickles?

  4. evestirs Said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 12:46 pm

    this may be a stupid question…but what does shiso taste like?

  5. renae Said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 1:10 pm

    Evestirs, it’s not a stupid question at all. I was dying to know what shiso tasted like until I finally managed to grow it. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to describe. I’ve read it is sort of “basil-y” and “minty”, but neither of those words describes how it tastes to me. The primary sensations I get are “clean” and “fresh”. In that way, I guess it’s sort of “minty”, but it doesn’t taste like spearmint or peppermint at all. It’s sort of vaguely citrus-y, not because it tastes sour at all, but because it’s sort of “bright”. Mostly it tastes “clean” to me. I know that’s not very helpful, but it’s a very unique taste…which unfortunately makes it hard to substitute for.

    Mom, no, preserving vegetables is considering making pickles. In this pickle, salting it and extracting the water (using pressure) are the methods of preservation, although pickles that are quick to make like this one don’t last very long and should be eaten within a couple of days.

  6. Mom Said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 1:53 pm

    Oh, I thought the pickling process took much longer. I think Aunt Lynn has our grandmother’s pickling crock.

  7. renae Said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 2:02 pm

    It depends on the “pickle” you are making. I’ve made refrigerator (as opposed to canned) dill (cucumber) pickles, and that takes a week. Kimchi is a type of pickle and that takes several days. Sauerkraut, which I intend to try to make soon, is a type of pickle and that takes several weeks to months. Indian pickles (which are made from a wide variety of vegetables) can take from one to several days to make. There are countless types of pickles. Most do take longer than the 30 minutes this pickle takes, but it’s also not a pickle in the sense that you are used to; it’s not tart or sour or anything like that. Other cultures sort of have a broader idea of what a pickle is.

    And I want a pickling crock! (I asked for one for Christmas if you will recall!) I didn’t know Aunt Lynn had a family heirloom pickling crock.

  8. evestirs Said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 2:25 pm


    i’ll have to look out for it at my local international grocery.

  9. dorothy Aruga Said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 8:06 pm

    Oka-san used to pickle japanese pickles in an emptied wooden-shoyu container. She would sun-dry daikon for about 2 days and place the daikon in a mixture of old rice, salt and about a 1/4 cup of sa-ke. Eventually, this mixture would ferment and was used over and over and oka-san was very careful about mold. Oh, yes, Oka-san had a cement wieght that was used as a press to draw-out the liwuid from the veggies. My mouth waters as I comment on oka-san’s tsukemono.

  10. Dorothy aruga Said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 7:24 pm

    why does cabbage leaves turn brown during pickling process?

  11. Fortuna Said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 7:19 pm

    Hi, I was reading your recipe but I think you might like the pickles better by following my method. The pickles will taste and crunch like the ones I had in Japan or the Japanese restaurants. I was taught this by my Japanese “moms”. Seeing that you have a pickle press you are half way there. I use Napa cabbage, cucumber and radishes. I use way more salt than you indicate here. There is no need to presalt the cabbage no matter which kind you use if you follow my method.
    I layer them in the container in single layers and salt generously in between layers. I screw down the top tightly. These veggies need to be under pressure and from your picture it looks as though the press is not screwed down tight. This is crucial for good, crispy pickles. I wait and hour to and hour and a half. I pour off the brine which is the liquid that was extracted by the salt. There should be a lot. I wash the veggies in fresh water to remove as much salt as possible. Don’t be afraid to use a lot of salt, most of it gets washed away with the fresh water rinsing. I put the veggies in a jar, fill with water to cover, add a little apple cider vinegar and a little salt to taste. I keep them in the fridge for several days. Please try my method and let me know how you like them.

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