Global Grub: Pickles

japanese pickled plums, or umeboshi
Image: mofoods.

What's a pickle to a traveler? Is it merely a snack, or an accompaniment to a great meal? Pickles are, in fact, much more than that. From vinegary pickles to preserved lemons, they are the oldest method of preserving food, a showcase for local food culture, and they reflect what's abundant and loved in an area. They also play the perfect companion to meals of all sorts, calming spicy curries, adding a crisp bite to a sandwich, or acting as a palette cleanser between bites. To help you find your perfect pickle when you're on the road, we're going to take you on a quick world tour of pickles, to help you know how to find a pickled treat no matter where you are.

North America
Pickled cucumbers at Carnegie Deli in New York City
Image: jastrow.

For Americans, it's hard to think of pickles without evoking the ever popular kosher dill pickle. These crispy, vinegary, garlicky cucumber pickles are forever linked to New York City delis, although their popularity has spread far and wide. Be sure to keep an eye out for the kosher's lesser known, but just as tasty, full sour cucumber pickle, which gets its sour flavor from fermentation, rather than vinegar. In the southern United States, pickled watermelon rind is a popular treat that helps beat the heat with its sweet and tangy flavor. However, it can't outshine the bizarrely colored koolickle, cucumber pickles colored & flavored with varieties of Kool-Aid, invented at a Mississippi grocery store. Cucumber pickles in different, radioactive colors are quite jarring, although this riff on the concept with red pickled mango seems a bit more palatable.

Europe

In Russian culture, pickling has been an important, and downright essential, part of their culinary culture throughout history. Pickled tomatoes (Помидоры солёные), a brined and fermented concoction, are a popular part of many Russian meals. Try these salty bites with a fried potato, if you get a chance. Further south, Italians often enjoy a vegetable appetizer (antipasto) comprised of cauliflower, carrots and onions pickled in a red or white wine vinegar. These tangy little bites are a great way to hold you over until food is ready. As a side note, Italian immigrants brought these to the United States, where they now top Italian subs nationwide and muffalletas in New Orleans.

Middle East

Pickles are a significant part of middle eastern food, with just about every locally-grown fruit and vegetable finding its way into a brine. In Lebanon, pickled turnips, or kabees el lift, are cut into strips and marinated briefly in vinegar, accompanied by beets for color. They're eaten as an appetizer or as a crisp accompaniment to a bigger meal; I always look forward to a chance to snap into them whenever I have a chance. Pickles aren't only appetizers, Amba is a tangy pickled mango condiment popular in Iraqi and Israeli cuisines.

Southeast Asia
Vietnamese Do Chua pickled vegetables on a bahn mi sandwich

In all of the different varied cuisines scattered around southeast Asia, the pickle is a constant. While recipes and tastes differ, you're always able to find a pickled something to cut the spice (or add to it.) In the Philippines, you can find a sweet and sour pickle called astara (or achara) made out of many different vegetables. However, pickled green papaya is the most common variety, and is eaten alongside many different Filipino dishes. Another popular pickle variety you will see throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore is acar, a spicy pickle of assorted vegetables that pairs well with a spicy curry. (The name acar is a remnant of Dutch word augurk, thanks to colonial rule in the area.) If you've ever eaten a bahn mi sandwich, you've probably tasted a Vietnamese staple, do chua. This sweet and spicy combination of carrots and daikon radish are ever present and paired with a wide variety of dishes.

Asia

There are few greater lovers of pickles than the Koreans and Japanese, with pickles showing up at almost every meal. One hard-to-miss Korean pickle is called danmuji, which is a sweet, tangy crunchy pickled daikon radish. You can find it whole or sliced thinly, but you will almost always find it colored a bright yellow. Like I said, it's hard to miss. Danmuji can be enjoyed by itself (like most good pickles) or as a key ingredient in kimbap and is served alongside the noodle dish jajangmyeon. Finally, there is a Japanese pickle unlike the ones you've seen before, the umeboshi. The sour & salty preserved fruit of the ume tree, umeboshi come in hard and softer varieties; the softer ones tend to be less salty and more "fruity." These preserved fruits aren't eaten whole like other pickles, instead they are usually mixed into rice or other food to add a kick to the flavor.

This is but a mere sampling of the world of pickles, just waiting to be tasted. What's your favorite pickle you've found abroad?

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Comments

There are some delicious pickles in China, had it last week yummy!