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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Shiso Katsuo Ninniku: Pink Pickled Garlic!

In my ongoing attempts to share with you my favorite ingredients, I would like to talk about my favorite food of all time

Good thin crust pizza is up there, but I have to say this is indeed my favorite food ever: Shiso Katsuo Ninniku (紫蘇にんにく) or as I call them, pink pickled garlic.

My grandmother would give me a couple garlic cloves as an after-school snack, and for as long as I can remember I've been obsessed. 

Now this may sound crazy of my grandmother--handing me cloves of garlic to eat straight--however, let me explain a little bit about the Japanese and their pickles below.

On a side note: my grandmother is totally crazy, but the best sort of crazy and I love her.

In Japan, tsukemono (漬物), which literally means "pickled things," is very popular and is served at almost every meal. Even when you go to the food court at Mitsuwa, they will give you a little thimble of pickles to go with your meal. My boyfriend doesn't like the taste of them, so I eat his share if I am not full to bursting. Most commonly, you will get takuan (沢庵) which is pickled daikon radish that traditionally is colored yellow with the addition of turmeric but nowadays it's probably dyed artificially. My grandmother must be especially fond of shiso katsuo ninniku because it seems to me I had it nearly week, if not every other day.

The pink pickled garlic gets its color from red shiso, which is used extensively for pickling (for more info on shiso, see my post) as well as some of its flavor. Katsuobushi, which is dried bonito flakes, is mixed into the brine to give the garlic cloves a nice umami and depth. Unfortunately, I have never found a recipe for these gems. I have regularly scoured the internet for years, but I think I need to learn more Japanese to be able to make them at home. I keep gathering clues about them, like that they may be made from ume-su, which is the brine made from picking umeboshi with red shiso.

You may wonder why I am so obsessed with trying to make shiso katsuo ninniku. Well in my teens, it vanished. Poof! No more shiso katsuo ninniku at Marukai! I don't know why, maybe it had to do with the collapse of the bubble economy in Japan, or troubles importing into America, or Marukai deciding America didn't need them, or something of the sort. All I know is the rare ones I did find were horrible, made with corn syrup and tasting all wrong. Every time I went to the market with my mom, she would share in my disappointment when I finally found a bag and crammed some cloves into my mouth only to nearly spit it out. My mother even bought pickled garlic from an American specialty pickling store for me, which I tried to doctor up by putting nori and furikake on them. I even fantasized about writing my relatives living in Japan and having them send as many brands as possible over here.
The brand at Mitsuwa and Marukai right now

Luckily, there are now several brands in both Mitsuwa and Marukai, but they are certainly not the most common tsukemono on their shelves and sometimes they sell out. Every time I go in, Mr. Mochi (my new nickname for the boyfriend) has to restrain me from taking their entire stock. I am paranoid they will never come back.

Now imagine if your favorite food disappeared. If pizza disappeared, I could make a pretty good version at home. If In-N-Out went kaput, I could make a decent facsimile at home. What happens if my coveted pink pickled garlic were to disappear? I would be royally fucked. I am not ruling out the patient relatives, however.

In the meantime, I will continue hoarding them in my shopping cart until Mr. Mochi catches me.

Update: I've got umesu (梅酢), which is the pickling liquid left over from making umeboshi, which all the recipes I've found indicate I should use to make this at home. I've had my cloves pickling for over a month, and they are inedible. The umesu has too much salt, and the vinegar is too weak to battle the garlic. Back to the drawing board, but don't worry I'm not giving up. I think I need more vinegar, more sour tang, and less salinity. It might be as simple as a different bottle of umesu, but this battle isn't over!

Recipes that feature Shiso Katsuo Ninniku:
Tsukemono and Furikake Donburi 
Uomoto Style Kare


  1. These are my favorite too. They disappeared a few years ago from everywhere and I am so bummed out. I get to Mitsuwa about 4 times a year and they are the largest japanese grocery store I know and they routinely have none or just a little bit. It's so annoying.

    1. Sometimes when I go to Mitsuwa they are out, and Mr. Mochi always rolls his eyes because I insist on checking Marukai on the same shopping trip.

  2. Miss Mochi: I'm not sure if anyone has passed this along but the following website has a recipe for the Pink Pickled Garlic (which I was also obsessively searching for after a recent trip to Japan). They are quite simple to make. Parboil garlic cloves for ~ 2 min. Put them in a jar with red shiso/miso. Let sit in the fridge for 3 months. I'm going to buy some red miso and bonito flakes tout suite!

    1. That's actually a recipe for miso pickling, called miso-zuke, not for shiso katsuo ninniku which contains no miso.

      Ninniku miso-zuke are tasty, but not the same thing. They are salty without the ume plum flavoring.

      However, I did find a recipe on a pickling forum that had a recipe for shiso katsuo ninniku, so I am going to have to try it and update this post if it works!

  3. This is what i found.
    Red ume vinegar 1cup
    sake 1/4 cup
    One big Garlic
    I dont speak japanese well, but that's what i found on a japanese page and it might be the one you're looking for. Im looking for it too. Just dont know how im going to get that Red ume vinegar.

    1. Went to a Japanese/Korean restaurant last night and they gave that as a side condiment. I asked for a recipe, and they of course, didn't know how it was made. (yeah! right)
      I ordered a cup to go and it's fantastic.
      Looked it up on-line and came across this web-sight and found you. Thank you for giving me hope.:-)

    2. That restaurant might not know how it's made either, if they don't make their tsukemono themselves.

      The ume vinegar, called ume-su, is the liquid leftover from making umeboshi. Apparently it is also available bottled. This is something I've been looking at pursuing, and I will be sure to post any success. The only thing omitted from Soupsup's recipe is the katsuo.

  4. Ume-katsuo ninniku are small because they are young garlic right !! I would discourage you to do it with fully ripe one as the flavor could be too strong and overpowering the whole thing !! Also young garlic are rather soft with a little sweetness comparing with big ripe one ... that in my sense is key element for the success of this pickle !!! Anyway let's experiment you might also get good result with average garlic !!!

    As for soupsup's reciepe, He tell to do it in june ... My guess is because 1. Young garlic become available around that time but freshly made ume-su become available rather in end of july-first half of august so ... not so sure about that one .... For the recipe i would drop the sake and replace it with thinnly shaved katsuo and put a little honey instead of sugar and eventually add a little of aka-shiso to strenghten the coloring but that all depend of your ume-su !!!

    So hope you can find all the ingredient required for your pickling and that you have enough patience to wait the minimum of 3 month before divin' in !! ; )

    As for me and How i'm going to use my small ninniku i just bought a few day ago ... (yes well off season i know) I'm gonna do "ninniku ume miso zuke" same as an average "miso zuke" but using this prep instead might add as well some shaved katsuo for an extra kick !!!

    1. The shiso katsuo ninniku garlic cloves I eat seem to be the same size as normal garlic I buy in the market. I don't think they are any smaller, but I agree that younger garlic would probably be less harsh. Interesting idea about the seasonality of this dish.

  5. Fantastic and informative post. Your blog is a pleasure and will be a fun resource in my bento making adventures :)

  6. Can't believe I found this - I ate this at a yakitori bar in Osaka in 2009 every night for a week (that may be one reason that there is a shortage as they ran out every night because we ordered it all :)) so addictive.
    So I have been searching the web sporadically for the name Umeboshi garlic and found nothing - I almost gave up then tried pink pickled garlic and boom! here it is!
    Well now I know the way I might try to pickle some myself. But better yet I work with a lovely Japanese lady who said she knows now what I was talking about (after showing her this) and will try to find for me :) fingers crossed!
    Thanks for the blog!

  7. WOW me too I have been wanting to make them myself and cannot find a recipe to save my life. As a chef myself I have been wantiung to just start doing what I know and adjusting as I play with it till i get it right but a recipe would be a real time / money saver. Even just knowing the base medium perhaps umesu (梅酢) and how long it has to pickle would be helpful. I miss dream, dream of them. Nothing beats a cold glass of Wakatake, Notto in Shiso Rice and Picked Pink Garlic. I am crying just thinking about it.

    AS for the Vinegar tray adding some Braggs Raw Apple Cider Vinegar. It is raw so the probiotics will help with fermentation and it is stronger than rice or plumb vinegars.

    1. That's a good hint! I have the umesu and I tried pickling some garlic, but it was certainly not a success. Raw garlic and strangely overly salty. It's back to the drawing board!

    2. So excited to find this post!!! I saw this for the first time at our Fuji Grand in the tsukemono section, and picked it up because I love anything umeboshi guessed the pink had something to do with it. When I ate it, I felt like a halo of light was exploding out of my mouth!!! Even my husband (who quirks his brows at my "random mystery pickles") can't stop eating them! When we return to the States I feel pretty sure that I won't be able to find this gem anywhere, so I'm desperate to recreate a home made version. Please keep us updated on your progress!

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  9. Thanks so much for this post! I desperately wanted to try these, but can't buy them in Queensland. My latest batch is delicious!

    If anyone's still working on this, here are a few hints:
    -Citric acid. A good tablespoon or two. The vinegar is never sour enough without it.
    -Simmering the garlic cloves in the pickling liquid for up to 10 minutes fixes the rawness, and makes them soak up the other flavours. More than 10 minutes and they go soft.
    -Something ocean-y (katsuobushi, dashi, kelp) is absolutely required.
    -Shiso furikake works to add flavour and colour, if you can't get fresh shiso or if ume-su is too salty.

    Fingers crossed for everyone who wants to make these at home!

    1. Ozymandias: thank you so much for your contribution. So you use Shiso Furikake and what type of vinegar? I really like that idea as my batches have been too salty. I'd love to try your recipe

    2. Apple cider vinegar or rice vinegar will work. Sorry, no recipe yet - I tend to just add things to the pot until the flavour is balanced. Will measure and take notes next batch, I promise!

  10. Hello! I hope you don't mind the anonymous comment. I was doing some research in preparation to a trip to Mitsuwa yesterday. I was actually looking for more info on pink pickled radishes and this article came up. After reading it, I saw some shiso katsuo ninniku at Mitsuwa and picked them up. My Mitsuwa has a fresh pickles section. I think they taste pretty good but the ingredients do say that they're made with corn syrup. Does that mean these aren't the ones you like? (Btw it turns out I was looking for "sakura daikon", which I found as well)

    1. My Mitsuwa has a brand that is pretty good. It does contain corn syrup, but the syrup taste isn't offensive as that one brand I mentioned in this post.

      Thanks for checking it out! I hope you had fun at Mitsuwa (the one in Costa Mesa has a fantastic food court).

  11. Went to make another batch and LOOK WHAT I FOUND!

    I won't be able to duplicate the recipe - vegetarian, can't buy ume-su or sour soup locally, and there's no way I'm not at least blanching the garlic first - but hey! It's a recipe! Somebody try it!

    1. Since I promised to supply the recipe I use as well, here it is:

      -1kg peeled garlic cloves
      -3 tbsp dried kelp pieces
      -500 mL cider vinegar
      -300 mL water
      -1/2 cup sugar
      -1.5 tbsp citric acid
      -1.5 tbsp shiso furikake
      -6 umeboshi, seeds removed
      -1.5 tbsp salt

      1. Set aside the garlic, kelp, 1/8 cup of sugar and 1/2 tbsp salt.
      2. Pour some boiling water over the garlic and leave to soak.
      3. Blend together all other ingredients. Add kelp and bring to a simmer. Add remaining sugar/salt/etc. if needed.
      4. Sterilise your pickling jars now.
      5. Drain off and discard water from garlic. Add still-warm cloves to simmering pickling liquid.
      6. Bring to the boil then simmer a minute to ensure everything is hot. Quickly transfer garlic and liquid to jars.
      7. Wait at least 1 month for flavour to develop before eating.

    2. Thank so so much! Question for you: do you process the jars after pickling? For the one month waiting period: are they in the fridge or are they stored in a cupboard?

    3. I run the jars through the dishwasher ahead of time, then pop them on the stove immersed in boiling water while cooking the pickling liquid. When it's time to fill them, I fish one out with silicone-coated tongs, fill it and screw on the lid.

      I wouldn't call this method safe for long-term cupboard storage, so mine are kept refrigerated and eaten within a few months. The antimicrobial properties of the garlic and salt, plus the acidity of the vinegar, keep it safe enough for my standards.

    4. Thanks for the reply! My recipe has never really lost the harshness of the garlic, and I wondered if it was because I had them stored in the fridge to develop flavor so I'm glad to see most recipes let them sit in the fridge for a month. I'm going to have to adapt my recipe to include the blanching of the cloves with boiling water, to see if that helps the harshness. I'm almost ready to post it, but it's just not quite up to snuff. Hopefully round 4 will yield success.

  12. The Reddit recipe calls for odorless garlic. Essentially, that's garlic cloves that have been soaked in an acid solution for a few days then dried out. They use a relatively flavourless acid so the garlic doesn't taste like vinegar afterward. You could probably try it yourself using something like cream of tartar, if the garlic taste is too sharp for you.