Like many Nisei grandparents, there were always at least a few jars of tsukemono at my grandma’s Central Valley home.
Even though they looked the same to me, she always remembered the stories behind them. She would say: “These cucumbers are from Reiko’s garden.” “This is Tomi’s takuan recipe, but she makes it better.”
When I talked to Blake Honda about my love of tsukemono, he had similar memories of his grandparents sharing jars and passing down recipes. He told me about the Tsukemono Festival in 2003 that was organized by Tom Nagata and his son Kevin (also known as Uncle Tom and Kev). The event’s mission was, “Preservation and continuation of this cultural delicacy for generations to come.”
Inspired by this event, we organized the second Tsukemono Festival — with members of the Central California Young Buddhist Association (CCYBA) — on Nov. 12, 2022, in the YBA hall of the Buddhist Church of Fowler.
On the day of the event, there were 17 tsukemono entries. Each was displayed on a uniform plate with a description that included the name of the dish, main ingredients, how long it had been aged, and any relevant story about the source of the recipe. Each taster was given a small plate and four tickets to vote on their favorite entries. With so many delicious contestants, it was hard to keep them all straight!
The tsukemono tasting was paired with a chicken teriyaki bento or barazushi bowl prepared by the Honda family.
After the voting was tallied, the top four winners were announced. Third place was a tie between Roy Hirabayashi’s “Sanbaizuke” and Alice Fujikawa’s “Nasubi No Karashizuke.” Second place was Mallory Shiroyama’s “Fukujinzuke” recipe, and the overall winner was Ruth Terada and her “(Not so) Spicy Asian Cucumbers.” Tayoko Honda won the “special mention” award with her umeboshi that has been aged for more than 30 years!
Like the stories preserved in my grandmother’s jars, the Tsukemono Festival was an opportunity for reflection and gratitude.
Tayoko Honda’s umeboshi was her sister Margaret’s recipe. Margaret couldn’t make it because of health issues. Blake Honda used Betty Mayebo’s winning recipe from 2003, which he renamed “Fukengoodzuke.”
Marc Sanwo submitted two recipes from his grandparents: “Mustard Green Takana” and “Karashi Zuke Nasubi.” Roy Hirabayshi entered a “Sanbaizuke” recipe that he adapted from my grandmother, Aki Shiroyama. Aiko Kamine entered a cabbage tsukemono that she learned from a neighbor who has since passed away, and added, “She was my best neighbor.”
The event was dedicated in memory of Uncle Tom and Kev Nagata, the original Tsukemono Festival creators.
Many of us in the Central California Young Buddhist Association have witnessed our family traditions change throughout the years. While nothing could replace the memories of busy and bustling mochitsukis, Obons, and oshogatsu gatherings, it felt special to recreate a new Dharma family tradition that centers our collective gratitude and appreciation for our tsukemono culture and Japanese immigrant community.
We gathered in the Central Valley and celebrated the art of tsukemono, and we plan to do so again on Saturday, Nov. 11, at the Cortez Buddhist Church, 12985 Cortez Ave., Turlock, California. The festival will follow the Cortez Howakai Post Harvest Service. The service begins at 10:30 a.m. and will feature guest speaker Blake Honda.
There will be a potluck following the service, where there will be tsukemono tasting and voting. If you’d like to submit an entry, please come before service between 9:30 to 10:15 a.m. Refreshments will be provided.
Please visit https://www.instagram.com/tsukemonofestival/ for recipes, pictures, and information about this year’s event.