The word is widely translated as "pickle" but that is a bit misleading. Pickles, at least in the American concept, refer exclusively to vegetables that are preserved in either a brine or an vinegar bath. (Both of which are acidic in nature.)
Tsukemono would better be translated as "preserved vegetables" or as in the original, "fragrant vegetables". Pickling is encompassed as a side-category.
The world of "preserved vegetables" globally is a little broader in its conception of what it means. The Japanese concept encompasses extremes where things are "lightly pickled" for as little as a few hours to everything that requires pickling for a few months. It also encompasses a style where vegetables are lightly cooked and then steeped in a marinade for a few hours.
That is a very broad range indeed.
The idea is to produce versatile side-dishes as accompaniments to the meal which are complex in nature and yet have an intense flavor either intrinsically or one that is drawn out from the vegetable in question.
The nature of the "preservation" also means that these dishes will last for a few days in the absence of refrigeration which can be rotated by the combinatorial game.
You "preserve" whatever is available fresh in the markets always rotating the ideas and serving different combinations at different meals that way keeping the meal fresh while still not wasting anything and sticking to the seasonal concept.
O Grandma! (Or in this case o-baachan — お祖母ちゃん.)
Them bitches be clever. What else is there to say?
Modern technology has really enhanced the ease of making these pickles particularly with the concept of a "pickle press". It's basically a plastic container with a lid and a screw press which allows you to compress the vegetables below the water line — a key concept in pickling without which they would rapidly spoil via fungal decay.
Japanese-style pickles are classified by what you are pickling with. The choices are multitudinous:
- Shiozuke (塩漬け) — pickled with salt
- Misozuke (味噌漬け) — pickled with miso
- Suzuke (酢漬け) — pickled with vinegar
- Amasuzuke (甘酢漬け) — pickled with sugar and vinegar
- Shoyuzuke (醤油漬け) — pickled with soy sauce
All of the above pickling is taking place in an acidic medium with the explicit (miso) or non-explicit (salt and/or vinegar) introduction of the lactobacillus family of bacteria with which we are deeply symbiotic. They are salt-tolerant and feed on the sugars present either explicitly or implicitly (vegetables) producing lactic acid which is deeply hostile to other microbes and particularly fungi. The result is, you guessed it, preservation.
The simplest pickles are the ones which only have salt. They are typically made with vegetables which will give off a large quantity of water, e.g. cucumbers. You salt the vegetable and compress it and as it gives off water, it both ferments and inundates itself below the water line. After that you pull it out and enjoy its concentrated flavor which has been modified by the bacteria. The solution is solidly rich in bacteria and you'd use it going forward to inoculate your next batch of "pickles".
The Japanese being Japanese, the concept of umami is never very far from the palate. The bacteria naturally produce intense umami flavors but they can be enhanced by the introduction of konbu or mushrooms or both. The result is lip-smackingly delicious.
The others all follow roughly the same principles. The combinations are traditional and the mixing and matching is largely a matter of style matched to the nature of the vegetable.
Hard vegetables (like burdock — ごぼ) are suited to the shoyuzuke style whereas watery vegetables like cucumber fit the simplest shiozuke style.
The CC loves making misozuke which can range from the simple to the hauntingly complex.
There's a world of exploration out here!