Obachan’s Pickle


Story by Becky Speere | Photography by Tori Speere

pickle rock
The heavy river rock I use to press excess water from the salted cabbage. The rock has a divot that doubles as a kukui-nut holder, useful for cracking hard-shelled nuts . . . but that’s another story.

“Do you know how to pickle?” my editor asked me. “Of course!” I replied. “All you need is a rock.”

As a third-generation, half-Japanese child growing up in Hawai‘i, I ate pickles at least once a day. No dills or gherkins; I’m talking about the savory fermented cabbage that locals call koko. Similar to German sauerkraut, it appeared on every Japanese plantation family’s dinner table.

And, like the Germans, each household had a vessel dedicated to aging cabbage. My Sendai grandparents used a white enameled pot or a ceramic crock containing a heavy black river rock and a dark-brown wooden disk. The rock’s purpose: to press the water from the salted cabbage. Aunty Jane in Hakalau used a man-made press the diameter of a small dinner plate. About three inches thick and approximately five pounds, it was made of concrete imbedded with a steel handle.

pickling ingredients
Cabbage wedges, cooked rice, and Hawaii Kai green-bamboo sea salt are ready for the crock.
Pickle Weights
Traditional pickle presses from the plantation era, late 1800s.

Aunt Elsie’s job was to keep the koko in stock for the daily meal. After prepping the cabbage and weighing it down with the rock, she would age it for two days in the sun, then rinse it under cold tap water, gently squeezing it by hand to remove the excess salt and moisture. I remember her giving me a tiny piece to taste and asking, “Do you think it’s ready?”  As it crunched in my mouth, it tasted of salt and sweet earth.

In its early stages of fermentation, we ate the cabbage with a flurry of freshly shaved katsuo boshi — dried tuna/bonito from Japan, generally used to make miso soup dashi (stock) — drizzled with a little Aloha brand shoyu. As the days passed, the cabbage became more acidic, acquiring a welcome sour zing. At this point, we’d grind a nub of ginger to a pulp on the oroshiki (a Japanese grater that purees ginger root) and sprinkle it on the cabbage with finely sliced green onion and shoyu. The umami flavor spiked our appetites. We ate it alongside fried eggs in the morning, or at dinner with savory dishes such as chicken hekka, fried fish and vegetables, accompanied by sticky white rice. With the recent popularity of fermented foods, I thought I’d share this recipe from my obachan (grandmother). Happy eating and probiotic health to you!

Fired with slivers of Hawaiian chili pepper, fermented cabbage is a versatile condiment that delivers a healthy dose of fiber, probiotics, and a gustatory kick.

Get the Koko Recipe


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