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CULTURE PEARLS : Japanese Pickle Stand Caters to Those Sweet on Sour

July 29, 1993|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | Benjamin Epstein is a free-lance writer who frequently contributes to The Times Orange County Edition. This column is one in an occasional series of looks at ethnic arts and culture in and around Orange County.

If you want to expand your taste horizons in a hurry, forget 31 flavors and head for Niitakaya, the inside the Yaohan market in Costa Mesa.

There, scores of pickled vegetables, fish and fruit provide a feast for the eyes--with bright pinks, yellows, oranges and purples--and an extraordinary experience for the palate.

The products, which can be sampled, are traditionally used as condiments, but according to the woman behind the counter, it's OK to ignore tradition. "However you want to eat it, you can eat it," she said.

Among the pickled items are whole radish, horseradish, radish with kelp, sesame seed and chili pepper, cucumber with ginger, scallions with honey, and several preparations each of turnip, seaweed and garlic. The label on one pink version of the latter, featuring beefsteak plant and dried bonito, boasts that "none smell."

"Restaurants often put the pickles out on the table (as condiments), and people start eating them like salad," said Niitakaya vice president Mike Hasegawa. "It's not traditional, but it doesn't matter. In Japan right now, it's also catching on to use these products like American pickles, next to sandwiches, and even inside them." Hasegawa likes to use the vegetables to refresh his palate between courses.

Shopper Audrey Reddig of Santa Ana serves them as a side dish with rice, a common practice. "It kind of gives things a lift," Reddig said. "Let's face it; rice is rice."

The stand also offers products that aren't pickled, but otherwise processed and referred to as "prepared." They include dried squid, squid with pollock roe and squid with sea urchin. With its slimy exterior, saltiness and chewy texture, the squid with pollock roe is what those little placards at sushi bars might deem "challenging." "Prepared" items are served as side courses or, Hasegawa said, "as a chaser, for sake."

Most products are sold in 10-ounce plastic canisters and cost $2 to $4, though some, such as nara zuke (with white melon and cucumber), are $10.99 because many items (like beer needs time to ferment) can take from six months to a year to process, and most are imported from Japan.

On the other hand, most will keep easily for 10 years. Hasegawa reports seeing 100-year-old pickled plums at a store in Japan for $30 to $40 per plum.

Niitakaya carries more than 20 varieties of pickled plums, and George Komatsu of Anaheim singled out the one with dried bonito as his favorite.

"Real sour, but very good for your health," Komatsu said of pickled plums in general. "The sourness kills germs and settles the stomach. People leaving Japan to come to the United States put them in a bag and eat one a day so they never get sick."

But those with low-sodium diets should beware. While a newer generation of products uses less salt so the dishes can be eaten like salad, the new-style "mixed vegetables" still contain salt, monosodium glutamate and soy sauce.

"People believe the products clean the inside of the stomach," Hasegawa said. "As much as I enjoy them, I'm not about to claim you'll get a healthy life eating pickles."

*

The Niitakaya pickle stand, inside Yaohan Costa Mesa at 665 Paularino Ave., is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (714) 557-6699.

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