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Nukadoko Progress Report: Adding the Infusion

Nukazuke fresh from the newly infused pickle pot.

From the very first time I mentioned an interest in starting my own nukadoko, Elizabeth Andoh offered to send some of her nuka paste for what she called an 'infusion.' She explained that the older, mature nuka paste gets added to the newer pot to lend a boost of energy, flavor, stability, and character or personality. Elizabeth also explained that while her infusion will sort of 'take over' the flavor of my pot the two will eventually meld. An infusion isn't necessary by any means, as my pot would have continued to develop on its own, but it is nice as my paste gains a sense of maturity it would otherwise take an extended period of time to develop. It's also a way for experienced picklers to lend a hand to those starting out. 

As Elizabeth mentions in Kansha, pickle pots were once a common feature of Japanese kitchens, and it is not unusual to learn that a pot and its paste have existed for generations, most often passed down from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law; although, not exclusively. 

"The Andoh pot," Elizabeth wrote in an email, "was probably started by my mother-in-law's mother-in-law, which means circa 1895." Elizabeth, however, started her own pot in 1970 under the tutelage of her landlady, Eiko Ohta, receiving infusions first from her and then from her own mother-in-law in 1972. Her pot has since been divided, taken abroad, recombined, and shared many times. 

Elizabeth's infusion fresh from the refrigerator and bag.

When I opened the first bag of Elizabeth's infusion to see if it had survived the overnight journey from downtown Tokyo, I was surprised by its peppery smell. She warned me that if it smelled off or musty in any way not to use it, but the two bags of what appeared to be roughly two packed cups of nuka paste each were well bundled up and accompanied by a bounty of ice packets to keep them cool. Her infusion was also paler in color than the nutty brown of mine (see top photo), and the texture was definitely more paste - wet but not sopping - than my damp, still somewhat coarse nuka.

As advised, I tipped in one bag and thoroughly mixed it with my paste. The texture of my pot became wetter and more paste-like as I kneaded and flipped, the peppery scent rising up. I then set in a lightly salted whole cucumber. Elizabeth suggested waiting about six to seven hours for it to pickle before doing a taste comparison. The temperature was about 84°F (29°C) and 58% humidity. My device said it felt like 91°F (33°C), which was true even with the nice breeze passing through the kitchen.

A cucumber-turned-pickle atop my freshly infused nuka paste.

The resulting pickle was a bit peppery and sour, flavors reflective of the melding underway, and generally more complex and nuanced than any of my previous pickles. (Think undertones and hints rather than simply 'sour.')

I set in another whole cucumber to pickle overnight - from about 10:30pm to around 9am - and found it to be, at least in this season, a bit too long for my taste. The color was good - green gone slightly yellow - and the inside showed definite signs of the bacteria working. The flavor was good but very pungent.

Pickled and pungent with friends, left to right, kombu, garlic, and ginger

"That's Japanese," said my friend, Mai, when I gave her a sample. (Her mother soon sent a request for a similar sample.)

Elizabeth reminded me via email that these longer-pickled veggies are known as furuzuke which literally translates as 'old pickles.' They seem to be a favorite with friends and neighbors out my way, but that is a topic for another post.

I set in another cucumber to see how things would go and took it out around 2pm. That day was full sun, and the heat settled in the house. The temperature when the cucumber went in that morning was 80°F (26°C) and 64% humidity. There was no breeze, and the air felt heavy. The resulting pickle was like the first one post-infusion: peppery and flavorful but not pungent. The cucumber itself was a vivid, polished green and the inside had a few 'watery' spots. The texture was a bit crunchy with the right amount of give. For my palette, this was a perfect pickle.

The perfect pickle...thus far.

Two days after the first infusion, I took the second bag from the refrigerator where it had been awaiting its opportunity since arriving from Tokyo and added it to the pot. At 11:03am, the temperature was 85°F (29°C) with 61% humidity that made it feel like 91°F (33°C). The scent emanating from the pot was still peppery but intensely sour, which Elizabeth assured me signaled busy bacteria rather than doom. 

"That's a good sign," she wrote. Another salt-rubbed cucumber emerged that afternoon around 4:15pm pleasantly polished and flavorful. 

Read more about my Nukadoko Adventures and get inspired to start your own! 


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