Tsukemono which means “pickled things” are not necessarily pickled as some perceive that notion with vinegar, salt and sugar, although there are examples such as the sushi shop staple “Gari” – young ginger pickled in sugar and rice vinegar- which comes to mind. But these Japanese pickles employ various methods such as salting, brining, beds of rice bran and controlled fermentation to achieve an inexhaustible collection of addictive, texturally engaging viands that have a diverse range of uses and command attention in the role of snack, palate cleanser, side dish, garnish and even a course in their own right within the hallowed Kaiseki course.
Historical records from Todaiji temple in Nara dating some 1700 years ago speak of Kusahishio, a fermentation/pickling system using soy beans, Koji and salt water for the purpose of primitive tsukemono production as well as Niragi where sake or vinegar are used for a similar yet clearly different outcome. In Nagoya they have a tsukemono ceremony “konomono Kai ” where a priest and good country folk put veg and salt into a bottle as they remember their ancestors and the offering of land and sea to the god of Kayatsu shrine that resulted in a eureka moment as deliciousness was discovered way after it should have perished.
A simple strategy for making these viands is to buy what is seasonal therefore inexpensive and abundant and then try different pickling methods on the same vegetable, fish or fruit giving you a crash course and a better understanding of how the various methods work with a given product. In due course your expertise and knowledge will flourish as will your palate and ability to adapt recipes asserting more detail to your preference.
Here is a basic guide of tsukemono candidates enjoyed in Japan by season…
Asparagus and Aralia cordata AKA mountain asparagus
Cherry blossom & leaf
Ginger root, flower buds, shoots
Pickling melon(shiro uri)
Shiso (red and green)
Sichuan peppercorn(mi zansho)
Japanese mountain yam (yama imo)
Fukujinzuke is an interesting pickled relish with an assortment of daikon, cucumber, lotus root etc
http://www.shokujapan.com/recipe/rakkyo-pickled-shallots/ this pickled shallot recipe will send you on your way to classic tsukemono but think about what you like, whats available as a pickling, fermenting, curing medium and make something your own.
These cucumbers and radishes smothered in miso I made were received with ovation and unlike the sometimes challenging and finicky kimchi or sauerkraut, even screw-ups will be edible!