Clay Pot Chaos, Microbial Madness, and Chinese Medicine

pickle ingredientsIt’s like an episode of Iron Chef: what can you make with wheat bran,  mustard, seaweed, chillies, beer, apple peel, and cabbage? Clock’s ticking!

The answer, naturally, is nukazuke, or Japanese bran pickles.

I learned about this bizarre practice in Japanese Cooking, A Simple Art, by Japan’s answer to Julia Child, Shizuo Tsuji. He informed me that pickles are a crucial part of the traditional Japanese diet, rather as bread is to the English and wine to the French. Often they are the only part of a meal besides rice. I don’t know why. Perhaps pickling was an important way to preserve vegetables in harsher times, or perhaps the Japanese just really, really like pickles. Probably both.

I have, in my time, followed a Japanese recipe for quick pickling cucumbers by slicing them fine, mixing them with salt and a little konbu seaweed and lemon rind, and leaving them for an hour to express their moisture. This, I learn from Wikipedia, is called asazuke and is the second most commercially produced pickle after kimchi. It is not, however, technically a pickle but a ‘preserved vegetable’ because of the brine, at least according to the EU. Asazuke are a kind of introduction to Japanese pickles, a hint at the massive labour that is to follow if you are going to walk the road of Japanese pickledom. Once you have mastered asazuke it is time to do what most traditional households do and make your own nukazuke.

Before we begin, I have to say this is one of the weirdest ways of creating food I have ever heard of. That alone is reason enough to do it. I must also say that, at the time of writing, my pickles still have a long way to go before maturity, so I cannot vouch that it actually works. Perhaps this is all a big hoax. I’ll get back to you on that one.

To make nukazuke, you will need a suitable container that you won’t need for anything else, possibly ever again. I followed this particular technique because it does not require a crock with a floating lid, something I have never managed to find for sale. Shizuo Tsuji recommends a stoneware crock or a glass vessel, deep and not too wide, or a Japanese wooden pickle tub, if you can find one, but even a plastic bucket with a lid will work. I happened to have the perfect vessel on hand, a ceramic pot with a lid that Chris gave me years ago. Chris used it to make oven-baked macaroni and cheese according to his own recipe, which is still some of the best macaroni and cheese I have had. It has now been repurposed for pickling.

You will also need rice bran, although wheat bran is an acceptable substitute. Apparently oatmeal and even cornflakes will work, but I’m not willing to experiment with that drastic option just yet. I still don’t understand fully how this even works.

My Recipe for Nukazuke

Adapted from Japanese Cookery, a Simple Art

10oz wheat bran (or rice bran if you can find it)

1 Tb mustard powder (I use Coleman’s)

3 Tb sea salt

1/2 cup beer

1 1/2 cups water, boiled and cooled

peel of one apple

4 dried red chillies

4″ square of konbu seaweed

vegetables

Make sure the bran is completely dry, by heating it in the oven if necessary (but don’t brown it). Put it in the pickle crock and, kneading it with your hands, add the mustard, salt, beer and water. It should be slightly pastelike. Distribute the peel, chillies and seaweed through the mix.

mixing ingredients

With one hand, dig deep in the mash and add a few vegetables. These will not be eaten, so they don’t have to be something you really want to eat. A leaf or two of cabbage will work. Insert 2 or three more vegetables at the middle and top layers of the mix, covering with bran to finish. Put the lid on the crock and leave it in a dark cool place (like Studio 54, that’s a dark cool place).

Let the vegetables sit for 24 hours, then dig them out and throw them away, giving the mash a good stir as you do so. Replace them with new vegetables. Follow this routine for the next 10 days. At this time, you can start making pickles to eat. Extract the apple peel and toss it.

Pickles after Day One

Pickles after Day One

I am only on day four of this recipe, so I will save the later part until I am certain it works. So far I can report that at the end of day one the mash smelled like wheat bran. By day two it smelt very faintly of beer, and now it definitely smells like fermenting fruit, as when you make your own wine. I think it’s working. Stay tuned.

While we’re on the subject of stoneware crocks, I came across a recipe the other day that sounded so disgusting I absolutely had to try it. It was courtesy of Luke Nguyen. You may not know who he is, but he’s bigger than Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain combined, in my home country of Australia. His recipe was called Pork Ribs Slow Braised in Medicinal Broth and included traditional Chinese medicine ingredients such as ginseng, lily petals, lotus seeds, dried goji berries, prunes and longon. I abhor traditional Chinese medicine, chiefly because of its smell, and only secondarily due to its taste (because I have never found a convincing reason, after smelling it, to taste it). But I enjoyed the technique he used, and after some fudging, put together my own recipe.

Ginseng is available in Asian markets, but I bought mine at a local store that specialises in crystals, incense, tea, and carven images of the Goddess.

Goji berries are also called wolfberries and barberries, and I was amazed to find I had a package of these already. What did I buy them for? I have no idea, but it was probably something Middle Eastern.

I couldn’t find lotus seeds so I substituted pickled lotus instead.

I couldn’t find dried longons so I substituted tinned longons instead. I like longons. They are very like lychees.

I couldn’t find lily petals, and, as mentioned, I’m not crash hot on the whole Chinese medicine thing anyway, so I left them out.

longans

My Version of Pork in Medicinal Broth

Adapted from Luke Nguyen

1 large pork blade steak with bone

1 teaspoon dried ginseng

1 teaspoon barberries

several hot pickled lotus shoots

6 longons

1 Tb pearl barley

several slices of daikon radish

6 prunes

1 tablespoon raisins

2 diced birdseye chillies

Remove the pork from the bone and cut into large chunks. Rub these lightly with salt and set aside.

"Medicine"

"Medicine"

Combine the remaining ingredients in a glazed clay pot with a lid (I used my Japanese donabe I use for hotpot). Mix in the pork. Tuck the bone in there somewhere, and top the whole thing up with water, just covering the ingredients.

pork in a bowl

Now for the tricky part. Place the pot inside a larger saucepan, and fill the saucepan with water to about 1/2″ below the lid of the clay pot. Cover, bring to the boil, then turn the heat way down low and let it barely simmer for three hours.

While this simmered I wondered two things. Firstly, whether the contents of the clay pot would somehow become edible, and secondly, how to remove the pot from the boiling water without freaking out and dropping it with a splash. Luke Nguyen charming explains that, as a professional chef, he’s “okay with boiling water.” Me, I am not. In the end I took it from the heat and added some cold water to the saucepan to replace the water that had boiled away. This enabled me to remove the clay pot without much trouble. Handles, or tongs, would have helped.

And the taste…?

It was fabulous. The pork was amazingly tender and the broth was delicious. Pork and fruit, I should have realised, are a natural combination. The daikon and lotus added a little salty spicy kick. In fact, it was so good that my wife let me know any time I felt like making it again, she would not be adverse to eating it, and that by no means happens every time I cook a recipe simply because it sounds disgusting.

Well done, Mr. Nguyen. I should have trusted you.

cooked pork

2 comments to Clay Pot Chaos, Microbial Madness, and Chinese Medicine

  • Brittany

    I’ve been studying up on Lactic Acid Bacteria (the microbes involved in food pickling, amongst other things) and this recipe works based on a few things:
    The rice/wheat bran contains many wild yeasts and LAB that will ferment your food, as well as providing sugar and starches that LAB like to eat. You’re encouraging those species to thrive over other strains, and those bacteria produce lactic acid, which then ferments and preserves your food. By ’seasoning’ this medium with other vegetables first, you are encouraging the specific strains of LAB that will best ferment those later vegetables. At least, this is what figured out from my research. Hope this helps!

  • jo

    I am dubious about the pickled bran but the pork sounds wonderful. Sounds like a suitable christmas dinner actually! So can you watch SBS TV from where you are or do they block it? http://www.sbs.com.au/shows/lukenguyen