What is Tsukemono? A Complete Guide to Japanese Pickles

By Brianna Fox-Priest
Updated: June 18, 2024

Ever wondered what those small bowls of chopped vegetables that came with traditional Japanese set meals were? If you have had such small side dishes with your order or a round of drinks, you likely would have come across tsukemono!

Tsukemono is a type of pickle made from various local vegetables (and even plums!). Depending on the region of Japan, you may find different variations of tsukemono. We like to think that’s why they are so special. 

Like many other cultures, pickles are a staple in the average person’s diet, but there are a lot of different kinds of pickles with a few distinct methods unique to Japan. This guide will help you identify Japanese pickles so you know exactly what’s on your plate when you visit.

What is tsukemono?

A serving tray of differing kinds of tsukemono Japanese pickles.

Literally meaning “pickled things,” tsukemono isn’t just a cucumber thrown in a vat of vinegar and herbs like in the US — they are their own category in the world of pickles. 

Tsukemono are the ultra nutritious addition to any balanced Japanese meal. Often served alongside rice, with drinks at an izakaya, as a garnish, or during a traditional tea ceremony,

tsukemono cleanses the palate.

Vegetables like cucumber, daikon radish, eggplant and slices of ginger are popular pickling options and are typically served along with rice and miso soup. 

Thanks to its rich history, Japanese people have mastered the art of pickles. Consider this a crash course in everything there is to know about the sour, crunchy and delicious sides known as tsukemono!

The history of tsukemono in Japan

A top-down shot of many different types of pickled vegetables on a checkered mat.

Created in ancient times, Japanese pickles were preserved using salt from surrounding seawater. This method allowed people to keep their crops a lot longer before refrigeration was invented. 

Salt-only pickles were commonly served as side dishes during the Heian Period (794-1185). A couple hundred years later, lactic acid fermentation was developed resulting in stronger and more versatile flavors. This method of pickling is still widely used today.

The most common kinds of tsukemono are pickled in salt or vinegar brine, but a few different methods exist that change the appearance, color, texture and taste of tsukemono.

A white, ceramic serving tray of pickled vegetables.

What came from necessity is now an important part of the average Japanese diet, providing digestive health benefits and acting as a palate refresher between dishes. The other purpose is to balance harmony of meals in both their flavor profile and aesthetics.

Many Japanese homes also make their own tsukemono from the vegetable stock in their refrigerator and readily available ingredients. Even if the same ingredients are used, no two batches of tsukemono are the same, that’s the beauty of these unassuming snacks.

6 types of Japanese pickles

Here are the most common types of tsukemono in Japan:

1. Salt (shiozuke)

Shiozuke, or salt pickling, is the most common and simple way to make tsukemono. Any vegetable can be used to make shiozuke tsukemono in just a matter of a few hours. Vegetables like cucumber, carrot or cabbage are sliced thinly and coated in salt. To release water and speed up the fermentation process, the cut vegetables are pressed by weights. 

2. Sake lees (kasuzuke)

A traditional Japanese serving box of sake lees, the byproduct of filtering sake.

On the other end of the tsukemono spectrum, kasuzuke sake lees is a resourceful preservation method that can help produce become imperishable.

Originating in Nara over 1,000 years ago, vegetables are preserved in leftover sake mash (the yeast mash left over when filtering sake) and mixed with salt, sugar and mirin. Curing from a few days to several years, these pickles can range from sweet and mild to pungent.

3. Rice Bran (nukazuke)

Cucumbers pickling in rice bran (nukazuke).

Another common household pickling method, tsukemono made with rice bran (the hard exterior to rice grains) can be preserved for long periods of time. Typically whole vegetables are mixed with rice bran, salt and kombu (kelp) resulting in a tangy and crisp flavor. 

4. Soy Sauce (shoyuzuke)

A delicious method of pickling is using a soy sauce base rather than plain salt. The soy sauce method is often combined with sugar and vinegar, making a tasty combo of flavors. Popular pickling foods include salmon roe and whole garlic cloves.

5. Miso (misozuke)

Thick blocks of miso paste on a ceramic serving tray,

Misozuke is a straightforward way of pickling. It’s as simple as lathering vegetables in miso paste (fermented soybean paste). The resulting flavor is an explosion of umami thanks to the salty miso. 

6. Vinegar (suzuke)

Suzuke tsukemono are low-effort pickles commonly using rice bran vinegar to aid fermentation. Vegetables will be crisp, slightly sweet and tangy. However, due to low acid in the vinegar, they do not last long outside the refrigerator.

14 Japanese pickle dishes

Now that we covered the most common methods of pickling in Japan, let’s go over the 14 most common types of tsukemono dishes you’ll find during your eating adventures.

1. Umeboshi

Bamboo trays of umeboshi, pickled plums drying by a window in Japan.

Umeboshi, a reddish pickled plum, is a notorious Japanese tsukemono dish and can be eaten as a side, found atop bento boxes or added to onigiri. It gets its red color from red shiso leaves. It’s heavily salted before fermentation, creating an extremely sour and salty flavor.

Another way to prepare ume in Japan is umeshu (plum wine).

2. Senmaizuke

Senmaizuke, meaning thousand-layered pickle, hails from Kyoto and is made by thinly slicing turnips and adding them to vinegar, kombu and togarashi pepper. After fermentation, it becomes an addictive sweet and sour flavor with a crunchy texture.

3. Rakkyo

A bowl of pickled rakkyo (scallions), soaking in vinegar.

If you’re a fan of scallions (green onions), rakkyo will be a nice addition to your next Japanese curry date. The ends of the scallions are removed and pickled in vinegar, sugar and sometimes togarashi pepper.

4. Narazuke

Made from the sake lees method, narazuke are brown tsukemono pickles from Nara. Uri (cucumber melon gourd) and daikon are popular vegetables to use for this dish. The soaking process can last a few years, making a pungent, alcoholic taste that pairs well with drinking at an izakaya.

5. Nozawana

A flower-decorated bowl with the Nagano specialty of nozawana pickles.

Originating in Nagano, this pickle is commonly served throughout Japan. Nozawana is a type of tsukemono that uses turnip greens which are dried, soaked in salt brine and topped with togarashi pepper and wasabi. It’s a slightly spicy and salty side dish and can be served as bite-sized pieces or as a relish.

6. Matsumaezuke

Matsumaezuke comes from Matsumae, Hokkaido, and uses fresh, local squid, herring roe, kombu and carrots seasoned with sake, mirin and soy sauce.

7. Gari

A small, silver grabbing utensil picking up slices of pink, pickled ginger.

If you’ve had sushi, you’ve seen gari! Gari is pickled sliced ginger with a balanced sweet, sour and spicy flavor. It ranges from yellow to pink in color and is meant to act as a palate cleanser between sushi dishes.

8. Hakusai no Sokusekizuke

Hakusai no Sokusekizuke is one of the most common, quick Japanese pickles made from lightly salted napa cabbage. It can be flavored with various ingredients to influence the flavor like yuzu, togarashi and kombu.

9. Saikyozuke

Another tsukemono dish from the sea, saikyozuke is pickled whitefish, like cod, in miso paste. After fermenting, the fish slices are grilled or broiled. The flavor results in a tasty umami, caramelized dish.

10. Takuan

Bright yellow radish on a plate with a set of chopsticks next to them.

These bright yellow Japanese pickles are commonly found beside rice. Made from sliced sun-dried daikon. Brined in salt, rice bran and sugar, it becomes a crunchy and sweet pickle. 

11. Kyuri Asazuke

Using the shiozuke pickling method, kyuri asazuke is thinly sliced cucumbers sometimes seasoned with vinegar, togarashi or kombu. During summer in Japan, some matsuri festival stalls sell a whole pickled cucumber on a stick for a refreshing treat.

12. Nukazuke

Pickled carrots, daikon radish and cucumbers on a black plate.

Nukazuke is an assortment of pickled cucumbers, daikon, carrots or eggplant. Often served alongside set meals, it makes for a balanced, traditional meal.

13. Fukujinzuke

A type of soy sauce tsukemono, fukujinzuke is a mixture of lotus root, daikon, cucumber and eggplant. Turned into a relish, it’s most commonly served with Japanese curry.

14. Beni Shoga

Chopsticks picking up thin slices of ginger. In the background, whole ginger.

Beni Shoga is the thinly sliced, red-colored ginger found nestled on top of dishes like yakisoba, gyudon and takoyaki. They are pickled in umeboshi brine so the end result is a salty and spicy garnish.

Tsukemono are uniquely Japanese pickles with a wide variety of types, flavors and purposes. 

If you’re interested in the traditional foods of Japan, tsukemono is a great entry point into the depths of Japan’s fermented cuisine

Tsukemono Japanese pickles FAQs

Bowls filled with different types of pickles, including cucumbers, onions and radish.

Are Tsukemono healthy?

Yes, Tsukemono is a healthy food option as it is low in calories, rich in fiber, and contains beneficial probiotics for gut health.

How long can Tsukemono be stored?

Tsukemono can be stored in the refrigerator for several weeks to months, depending on the type of pickles and the storage method used.

Can Tsukemono be made at home?

Yes, Tsukemono can be easily made at home using simple ingredients like vegetables, salt, and seasonings. There are many recipes available online to guide you through the process.

What are the benefits of eating Tsukemono?

Eating Tsukemono can aid in digestion, improve gut health, and add variety to your diet with different flavors and textures.

We strive to be as accurate as possible and keep up with the changing landscape of Japan's food and travel industries. If you spot any inaccuracies, please send a report.
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Brianna Fox-Priest
Your local cafe hopping expert. Brianna is a Japan writer and coffee shop enthusiast. Her days as a Japanese language student in Tokyo led to the discovery of the city's many hidden gems. When she's not writing, you can find her on the lookout for shrines or ice cream (and sometimes both).
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