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Nukadoko Progress Report: Super Sour with Excess Liquid

Standing liquid in the nukadoko!
Photo of a finger pointing at liquid on surface of nuka paste in brown pot.

I was worried. I'd seen some liquid in my nukadoko, which I knew was normal based on my near constant perusal of the recipe in Kansha, but the pickles were coming out sour. I mean the kind of sour that makes you scrunch up your face and go "Whew!" 

I was worried that perhaps the pot had gone acidic or that some other issue might be at play. Live bacteria are very much like having a pet in the house. There is joy, delight, and wonder, but there is also a need to monitor behavior to understand its 'normal' state of health and well-being. 

Over time, liquid accumulates in the nukadoko as you pickle ingredients in it. Vegetables are salt-rubbed before pickling, which initiates the drawing out of fluid. More fluid is drawn out as the lactobacillus present in the nukadoko set to work transforming these vegetables into tangy treats. Eventually, the fluid builds up and can be seen as puddles on the surface of the nukadoko. 

Small puddles can be soaked up by dabbing the surface with paper towels, which I had been doing. However, the feel of the nukadoko paste was becoming more akin to the nearly viscous mud pies I made in summer as a child and the smell was very, very sour. For Elizabeth, the scent was the giveaway.

"With a nukadoko, the scent is the first thing I pay attention to," she said. "That tells me what's happening in the pot and how I might respond."

Sourness is a sign of an overly acid pot. Elizabeth mentioned that this can happen if the pot is not turned (meaning flipped and flopped by hand) enough during hot weather. This lack of turning can also cause it to go musty. The pot can also lean toward sour if there is not enough salt, but I knew that my pot sitter had recently amended it. We ruled that one out. "Puddle wet," Elizabeth continued, "means excess liquid that needs to be drained away."

My heart quickened with anticipation. For my nukadoko and me, draining excess liquid felt like a significant step forward in our maturing relationship.

"But first, you should gauge the level of pH in your pot," Elizabeth said. My heartbeat slowed as I nodded and jotted down her advice in my diary: throw in a whole clove of garlic and a piece of ginger. It was, she explained, an easy way to add flavor and see what was happening in the pot, something that is especially important as one season shifts to another. "If the garlic turns blue and the ginger pink, it indicates the pot is well balanced between acid and alkaline. If it is balanced, then add fresh nuka powder to absorb the extra moisture."

If it continues to smell very sour, she continued, then eggshells could be added. 

I looked up, my heartbeat quickening again. Eggshells? Oh, this could be exciting!

Eggshells, Elizabeth explained, are a traditional addition when the pot is overly sour. They add calcium to the medium, which naturally neutralizes the acidity while simultaneously adding nutrition. It is one reason they are part of the mix in the irinukamisokarashi added at the start. (Vegans will instead want to add extra nuka powder to balance the acidity.) All of these things work together to create a balanced pot environment where lactobacillus can thrive and pickle veg. 

"For any pot (vegan or not)," Elizabeth continued, "you should consider adding dried fruit peels as a natural way to refresh and, literally, sweeten the pot. In the autumn dried persimmon peels, and in the winter, dried mikan peels." The fibrous peels would also make good munching for the pickle pot's bacteria in addition to whatever veg is being pickled at the time.

As I listened and took notes, Elizabeth also reminded me that it was the generations of observant and clever pickle pot tenders who preceded us that figured all of this out. It certainly feels like an honor to be following in their footsteps as my pickle pot and I move our relationship forward. We'd come full circle - from too dry to too wet - and remained healthy. 

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