Commitment-phobic foodies beware Japanese rice bran pickles. It’s been one month since I've decided to mix toasted rice bran with water, salt, puréed bread, eggshells, chili peppers, ginger, and kombu seaweed and store it in a dark cupboard in my kitchen. Called a nuka pot, I swore I’d mix the soggy mush daily to inoculate my Japanese pickle-maker with microbes from my hands. I promised to change the starter vegetables stuffed under the mush every day for the first weeks while the nuka pot established its colony of bacteria and the starters absorbed some of the salt. Crazy? Maybe, but both Chef David Chang of Momofuku in New York and Food & Wine magazine’s restaurant editor, Kate Krader, share my love of fermented things. According to Krader, fermentation is one of the most exciting food trends. For Chang it’s about creating new flavours – cheesy chickpea misos, fermented pistachio butters, and earthy Katsuoboshi-style pork. "Microbes equal flavor," said Chang. So at the Momofuku lab he and his fermentation collaborator, Dan Felder, have ”just been letting stuff rot.”
What is Nukazuke? The Japanese have been letting things like rice bran pickles in nuka pots rot for a long time. Nukazuke come from Japan, where rice bran – a rice production by-product – is abundant. It’s a kind of Tsukemono, the quick pickles served in a traditional meal. Nukazuke are quick to make, often requiring no more than one night to ferment once the rice bran bed has been properly “inoculated,” which takes up to a month. After that, the vegetables you bury in the mix will ferment quickly, developing amino acids. The glutamic acid will combine with the aspartic acid, and voila! Umami – that mystical, deep, savoury, fois gras, bone marrow, miso, mushroom, “earthy” flavour that Chang and Felder define simply as “delicious.”
I appreciate umami too, but the real attraction to Japanese fermented rice bran pickles, and the reason I was willing to take a chance on eating food mixed with unpasteurized eggshells that have been sitting in a funky mixture for two weeks, was the benefit to my gut. Why Make Nukazuke? In 2016 annual sales of probiotics are expected to hit $4 billion, a sharp increase from the $2.7 billion mark of 2011, with the strongest gains coming from the US, Italy, Russia and Brazil. The desire to improve immune function and digestion by flooding the gut with small number of known strains of healthy bacteria is growing, but the combined frugal health seeker and funky food lover kills two birds with one stone by eating delicious fermented foods rife with healthy bacterial strains. Popping a pill, it turns out, is a lot easier than making and taking care of a nuka pot, though not necessarily as bacterially diverse or physiologically helpful. There’s a reason I don’t own houseplants. My thumb is far from green. And this daily turning of the “soil” is an awful lot like gardening.
Making Nukazuke Day 1
I toast 2 kg of rice bran in a skillet, stirring occasionally to brown it until it’s nutty and aromatic. I let it cool while combining 400 g salt with 2 L boiling water and stirring in a slice of chopped bread. I put the bran in my nuka pot, add dried kombu seaweed, minced ginger, a dried red chili pepper, 2 crushed eggshells, and ladle in the water while massaging it all together with my other hand. Some recipes say to wear gloves to mix, but the authentic ones insist on ungloved fingers for more “complex” (read “enzyme-heavy”) flavours. I press my nuka down, cover it with a cloth (like letting bread rise), and store it in my cupboard, anxiously.
I stir my pot each day, massaging the ingredients and pressing back down before storing.
I wedge zucchini and pepper slices under the bran, removing them the following day, and replacing them with more chopped vegetables to suck out the salt. Press. Store.
I may have forgotten to stir my pot once. I am an irresponsible nuka parent. My hands smell awful every time I stir, and the smell lingers no matter how hard I scrub. What if I absent-mindedly bite my nails? Can the eggshell make me sick? If I’m scared of my fingers, how will I ever want to eat my pickles?
I eat a carrot. I rinse it in water to remove the bran and excess salt. I hesitate then bite. It’s softer than a raw carrot and still very salty. I fight the counter-intuitive urge to spit it out or boil the remaining pieces to kill potentially harmful bacteria. The whole point is to eat the good bacteria, but how do you know if your bacteria are good or bad until you eat something you’ve fermented? Oh, I shouldn’t have used the eggshells! Later… I’m not sick. I’m a little flushed, as though my body is working hard to digest the carrot.
I eat another carrot. It’s still very salty, but with a little more earthy “umami.” Am I doing something good for myself or just making myself a little sicker every day I eat a carrot?
I have a flight today. One of my nukazuke references instructs me to either ask a friend to take care of it for me or to cover it in a layer of mustard powder and salt until my return. Some jet-setting nuka parents take their pots with them, but what if it spills? I’d rather not go through customs with an unsealed ceramic bowl (were it sealed my nuka baby would suffocate). It’s as difficult as taking a small child on a plane, but without the potential crying (not counting my own tears). Should I buy it an extra seat? In the end I eat a salty radish and opt for mustard and salt to put my nuka pot to sleep.
I put off starting my pot up again. All I want is a few more days of freedom. I can go anywhere and do anything!
I can’t do it. I can’t commit to constant care and a lifetime of potentially delicious pickles and smelly hands. Sauerkraut. I’ll stick to sauerkraut. That’s relatively easy. Mr. Chang, I will buy your pistachio miso, as long as it doesn’t come in a processed jar that destroys its nutritional benefits. My gut will be so happy and so much less scared. But if I do ever think I can handle nukazuke again, I’ll make it without eggshells, turn it every day, and most importantly, have someone to share the work. Children are awfully tiring. I have nothing but respect for single nukazuke parents. With a sigh of relief I throw out the contents of my nuka pot. This is cute, but not altogether necessary.