Takuan: A Zen Pickle
There are many ways to pickle a daikon radish, and of those, the takuan daikon pickle certainly stands out. Takuan pickles have a distinct appearance and even more distinct flavor. They are long, somewhat thin, and bright yellow. Their flavor is crunchy, salty, slightly spicy and surprisingly sweet. Their pleasant taste and texture makes them a very popular home cooking and they commonly make appearances in bento boxes, as part of maki sushi, and as a side-dish eaten with rice.
The traditional creation of Takuan pickles is somewhat labor intensive and time-consuming, meaning that pickle creation is typically an annual occurrence, happening a short while after the radishes are picked in the fall. To become takuan pickles, daikon radishes are first hung by their leaves to dry in the sun until the radish becomes dehydrated and flexible. Next, the radishes are placed in a fermentation crock, and buried in a mixture of salt, rice bran, sugar, daikon greens, and kombu. Occasionally chili pepper and dried persimmon peels are added for flavor and color. In today’s modern age, sugar syrups and food coloring are often added to speed the dehydration process and enhance the yellow color.
According to popular consensus, the famous Zen monk, Takuan Soho, is credited with the invention of the takuan pickle during the Edo period. The story of the pickle’s origin goes something like this. One day, the shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, complained to Takuan that, no matter what he ate, nothing seemed to taste good. If there was a food that would capture his interest, the shogun wanted it. In response, Takuan told the shogun that he would prepare a breakfast for him the next morning that he would be sure to like.
The next morning, the shogun arrived at the monastery and was greeted by Takuan. Takuan asked the shogun to have a seat, and assured him that he would have his breakfast in a little while. Hours passed, and it was soon afternoon. The shogun, who had grown quite impatient was about to get up and leave when Takuan finally arrived with his meal. Takuan apologized for his lateness and presented the shogun with a relatively simple spread-- rice porridge and a yellow, sliced, pickled radish. Dismayed, but compelled by his hunger, the shogun quickly ate everything that Takuan had prepared. Much to his surprise, the meal was incredibly delicious and the shogun was quite satisfied by what he had eaten.
“What was that delicious yellow pickle?” the shogun asked Takuan. “It was a daikon pickled in rice bran.” replied Takuan. “So, nothing special.”
When the shogun appeared to be impressed nonetheless, Takuan told him, “As the shogun, you always have access to the best food Japan has to offer. If you eat that way all the time, your palate will become accustomed to it, and it will no longer taste remarkable. If you wait for your hunger, as I did, even a simple meal of rice and pickled radish will be delicious. Therefore, if you want your food to taste good, you should wait until you are hungry to eat.”
Appreciative of the lesson Takuan had given him, the shogun asked Takuan to create daikon pickles for him, and thus the takuan pickle that we know and love today was born.
Takuan pickles are still made at Takuan’s home temple, Sukyoji Temple to this day, using his original recipe. The pickles are usually served alongside other traditional vegetarian foods as part of a zen dining experience hosted at Sukiyoji Temple. Your average takuan pickle, however, can be purchased from your local Asian grocery store. Eaten alone, in sushi, or with rice takuan pickles are both delicious and healthy and are sure to bring an exciting zing to any dish.