Making Pickled Chinese Cabbage, Japanese Style

Reader Contribution by Winifred Bird
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Greetings from the mountains of Japan! In October/November of 2008, Mother Earth News published my story on Finding the Good Life in Japan. I wrote about heater tables, tiny ovens, pickled plums, and getting used to country life in a (very) foreign country. Two years later, my husband Keita and I have moved from an orange-growing village by the sea to an apple-growing town in the mountains. We’re starting a new adventure in modern homesteading, and at the same time I’m starting this blog where I hope to share more tips and stories about Japanese country life with Mother Earth readers. I hope you’ll use the Comments section to ask me questions about Japanese cooking and farming techniques, or anything else you’d like to know about how people here approach sustainable living.

Once again it’s November, which just might be my favorite month in Japan. It’s definitely a delicious one! Our storeroom is full of persimmons, apples, kiwis, sweet potatoes, ginger, and winter squash, and the loveliest sweet smell wafts out each time I open the door. On Sunday, Keita and I walked down to an abandoned farm that we’ll be helping to look after and picked a couple of crates of persimmons from an enormous old tree outside the barn. I spent yesterday morning peeling them and hanging them from the eaves to dry. See my instructions for How to Dry Persimmons if you’d like to try. They’re easy to make and are a yummy, healthy snack.

Since we just moved here we haven’t got our garden going yet, but luckily the neighbors have been sharing their veggies and fruit with us. They cruise by our house in the tiny white trucks that seem to be required equipment for Japanese farmers, and call out: “Hey, do you want some apples? How about some persimmons?” (Makes me feel a bit like Snow White, but I’m pretty sure these apples are safe.) A couple of days ago we received two enormous heads of Chinese cabbage. I’ve got them salted down in an enamel pot in the kitchen, and I thought I’d share the pickle recipe I used. The Japanese aren’t so big on canning, but they are huge fans of fermentation (miso, soy sauce, pickles, sake). This is an easy traditional recipe to start with. It’s a bit of an acquired taste, though! If the pickles are too salty, soak them in water before serving.

Japanese-style Pickled Chinese Cabbage

(Adapted from Pickled Plums, Pickles, and Preserves: Tasty Homemade Recipes I’d Like to Share with My Daughter, in Japanese, by Masayo Waki)

Ingredients and equipment:

  • Chinese cabbage
  • Coarse salt (3 to 5 percent the weight of the cabbage)
  • Whole dried chilis
  • A pickling crock or large enamel pot (size will depend on how much cabbage you have), a glass plate that fits inside the crock, and a weight that’s about twice as heavy as the cabbage (a rock works, as long as you boil and cool it first to kill germs). Wash and dry all equipment in the sun, and ideally sterilize by wiping with some alcohol.


  1. Weigh the Chinese cabbage. Wash it, then cut lengthwise into four to six wedges. Lay the wedges on flat baskets or trays and dry outside in the sun for a day.
  2. Sprinkle some of the salt on the bottom of the pickling container. Put in a layer of the cabbage, bending the leaves around so it’s tightly packed in. Put in a chili or two and sprinkle with salt. Continue layering till you use all the ingredients. Aim to put more salt on the thick stems of the cabbage, and more towards the top layers than the bottom. Push down with your fists as you go to pack snugly.
  3. Put the plate on top, then put the weight on top of the plate. Cover it all with a sheet of newspaper tied down with a string to keep out dust and set in a cool (about 40 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal), dark place. Liquid should rise to the top within a day or two, at which point you can reduce the weight by half. It’s ready to eat in 4 to 5 days, but will keep for a couple of months. During that time it will continue to get more and more sour. Personally I like how the flavor changes, but if you find it’s getting too strong, transfer the cabbage to a container in the refrigerator (keep a weight on it so the cabbage stays submerged in the liquid).
  4. Serve with a steaming bowl of rice. I like to drizzle on a bit of sesame oil and some sesame seeds. You can also try tossing the pickled cabbage into a stew.
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