When you sit down at the counter in a sushi restaurant, a chef may place a small mound of pickled sweet ginger in front of you before asking which sushi you wish to order. Sushi is always served with this slightly pink, sweet, pungent relish. Gari is the word for it in sushi restaurants; if you are not Japanese, you can surprise the chef by using this name.
A small bite of ginger eaten after a piece of sushi removes the oiliness of the fish from your mouth and refreshes your palate. Sweet pickled ginger is usually served free of charge. Sweet pickled ginger is made from young ginger, which appears in the market from early May through August in Japan. You may be able to find young ginger at Asian markets in the United States. Unlike ordinary, more mature ginger, young ginger has a very thin skin, a creamy white color with pinkish knobs, and juicy, tender flesh.
Sweet pickled ginger is easy to find at Japanese and other Asian food stores, but the commercial product often contains preservatives and food coloring. So make your own! If you can’t find young ginger you can use a more mature root, but choose one that is thin-skinned and wrinkle-free. Sweet pickled ginger keeps two to three weeks in the refrigerator.
Yield: About 2 cups
14 ounces ginger, preferably young
9 tablespoons komezu (rice vinegar)
2¾ teaspoons salt
5 to 6 tablespoons sugar, to taste
Peel the ginger, and cut it lengthwise into paper-thin slices 1 to 1½ inches long.
In a small saucepan, combine 3 tablespoons water, the rice vinegar, 2½ teaspoons salt, and the sugar, and bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat. Cook the mixture, stirring, until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Turn off the heat, and transfer the liquid to a clean quart container with a tight-fitting lid.
In a medium pot, bring about 2 quarts water to a boil over high heat. Add the ginger slices all at once, and blanch them for 20 seconds if you’re using young ginger, or 30 to 40 seconds if the ginger is mature. Drain the ginger in a large, flat-bottomed colander, spreading the slices so that they dry quickly. Sprinkle the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt over the ginger slices, and toss gently. While they are still hot, transfer the ginger slices to the container of pickling liquid. When the ginger slices contact the vinegar, they will turn a pretty, faint pink color. Refrigerate the ginger for two days, covered, before using it.