I first discovered traditional Japanese foods in Akita prefecture, part of the Tohoku region of Japan, which is well-known for its pickled and fermented foods. Many of these foods, including miso, soy sauce, sake, natto, rice vinegar, tsukemono (pickles), and katsuobushi (dried bonito), are common throughout Japan but are a staple of the Tohoku diet due to the region’s harsh winter climate. Recently, such ingredients have exploded in popularity as the pandemic provided an opportunity for many to realize their nutritional value and potential health benefits.
Fermentation vs. Pickling: Key Differences
Although both pickling and fermentation bring out subtle flavors in foods alongside a sour or tangy taste, they differ as preparation methods. Pickled foods are sour because they are soaked in an acidic brine, while fermented foods are created through a chemical reaction between naturally-present sugars and bacteria.
Additionally, there is a difference between quick pickles and lacto-fermented pickles. Lacto-fermented pickles are made using brine that does not contain any acid. Such brine only contains water, salt, and other additional flavorings. These days, most homemade tsukemono in Japan do not contain rice vinegar, so they are classified as a type of lacto-fermented pickle.
Popular Fermented & Pickled Foods
Below, I will introduce some representative fermented and pickled foods of Japan and their nutritional benefits.
Tsukemono are homemade pickled vegetables made by soaking ingredients in water, salt, and other flavorings such as bonito. Some vegetables that are commonly prepared in this way include mustard greens, eggplant, turnip, daikon, and cucumber. Tsukemono are high in fiber, which can help lower cholesterol and prevent blood sugar spikes, helping to reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. The fiber in many kinds of tsukemono also helps to promote bowel health.
Try some of our popular tsukemono such as Crunchy Pickled Yuzu Daikon, Takana (Pickled Mustard Greens) or Iburigakko/Smoked Takuan (Pickled Daikon Radish) or make your own using our Asazuke (Lightly Pickled) Pickling Juice
Natto is a ready-to-eat product made by fermenting steamed soybeans with the help of a special strain of bacteria commonly known as natto-kin (natto bacteria). This fermentation process greatly contributes to the nutritional value of cooked soybeans. Natto is particularly rich in B vitamins, including vitamin B2 (which is essential for growth and overall health), vitamin B1 (needed for energy metabolism and cellular function), vitamin B6 (which supports mental health, immunity, and healthy skin), and vitamin B3 (which supports digestive and neurological health).
Try our umami-rich Natto Koji Paste - a great way to enjoy a subtler flavor of natto without the stringy texture!
Miso is a traditional fermented paste made of soybeans, salt, and koji (a special mold culture). It is one of the five basic seasonings used in Japanese cuisine, along with sugar, salt, vinegar, and soy sauce. Miso can be used to preserve meat, fish, and vegetables. It provides a healthy source of protein, vitamins, and minerals, making it a real power food. Miso is most commonly used to make miso soup, which accompanies most traditional Japanese meals.
The Japanese have long regarded vinegar as a tonic that combats fatigue, and science is beginning to catch up in support of this view. Vinegar is also an ally in the fight against diseases and conditions associated with aging, including hypertension, high cholesterol, and high triglyceride levels. Vinegar can also lower blood sugar and reduce the risk of diabetes. Additionally, vinegar is also recommended for weight loss.
Try our Pure Rice Vinegar.
As many Japanese pickled and fermented foods are sold in stores already prepared, they present a convenient, healthy alternative to the frozenand artificially preserved foods common in Western countries.
About the Author:
Jessica Craven is a writer, artist, and designer passionate about introducing aspects of Japanese culture to English-speaking audiences. Previously, she studied Japanese traditional art forms and art history at Akita International University, worked in art museums and galleries in the United States, and returned to Japan to work in Saitama for five years on the JET Program. She is fascinated by how traditional Japanese art forms, like tea ceremony, are closely related to philosophy and health. She currently lives in Tokyo, where she is continuing her writing career.