One of my fondest memories of Japan was visiting a pickle shop in Kyoto. The dark, wood-paneled walls and hand painted signs gave the place a mysterious and ancient feel. Though curious, I was turned-off by all the squishy-looking pink, purple and yellow things that, to my fifteen-year old brain, did not= pickle.
Suddenly, the store was mobbed by uniformed school kids. With uncharacteristic abandon, they ran amok through the rows of pickle barrels, shouting to friends, and searching out their favorite briny treats. Tiny hands plundered the barrels and emerged with treasures of all shapes and colors. All I could do was stand there and ponder, “but they’re just pickles, and they’re weird pickles.”
To my surprise, I observed as those pickles brightened more faces than any Snickers bar or pack of Twizzlers ever could. Seriously, it was the closest I have come to the Candy Man scene from Willy Wonka.
Those few minutes of the day were precious – a chance to let loose between school (known to be super tough in Japan) and homework – and kids chose to spend them at the pickle shop. Being present at their moment of joy really opened my eyes to the possibility of a world beyond Vlasic kosher dills and hot dog relish.
Living in New York, I’ve more than redeemed myself for that day. A bowl of chickpea curry at Punjabi would not be complete without a scoop of mango pickle. Where would tofu custard soup be without kimchee? And how excited would I be about my falafel pita without that little gherkin poking out?
I’ve even made my own pickles, the old-fashioned way, with fumes from a pot of boiling vinegar burning the inside of my nose. But, by the time the recommended three to five days came around, there were only two left in the jar. If pickles were originally created to keep food edible over long periods of time, why are they so good? The problem is that when I get hungry, time-tested processes and ancient recipes are useless. So, today, I created this recipe for instant, Korean-style pickles that are ready in one minute. Instant gratification with no oak barrels necessary.
6 kirby cucumbers, sliced
½ c. rice vinegar
½ c. water
1 tbp. salt
1 tbp. crushed chili flakes (2 if you like it spicy)*
½ tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. sesame oil
Whisk together everything but the cucumber slices. Add the cucumber slices and toss to coat. Adjust seasoning as necessary and serve. Refrigerate any leftovers in a sealed container.
*a note about chili flakes: I used “ground chili” from Singapore that is halfway between chili flakes and chili powder. There are no seeds in it so if you are using the kind with seeds you may need to add less.
Update: I found my half-breed ground chili at Kalustyan’s! It’s labeled “Korean Chilli Powder” and is $9.99/lb (you can buy as little as 1/4 lb).