A beef rice bowl topped with a lot of beni shoga and cayenne pepper

Beni Shoga: Osaka's Colorful Take on Ginger

Have you ever been to a Japanese ramen shop or beef bowl shop and seen those reddish-pinkish pickles? Have you ever thought, “What the heck is that?” Well, we’ve got an answer for you. That is beni shoga, a Kansai creation that is all over Japanese cuisine as both a topping and as a fried treat.

But what exactly is beni shoga? Why is it so red? How do you make it? You can fry it? Learn all the answers to your burning questions here!

What is Beni Shoga?

A container full of pieces bright red-pink beni shoga
Beni shoga is easy to find at places like beef bowl shops, ramen shops and Japanese curry shops because of how well it pairs with these foods. Image via Instagram (@gyo.gyo.gyo.gyo)

Beni Shoga is a type of red pickled ginger. Just like most other ginger, it’s made from regular ginger root. Ginger root is shaved and pickled, but what makes beni shoga unique is what you pickle it in.

In Japan, there are two types of pickled ginger, gari and beni shoga. Pickled ginger becomes gari when you pickle the ginger in regular vinegar and is popular in the Kanto area. What makes beni shoga what it is is the use of umezu.

What is umezu? Well, it’s plum vinegar, a byproduct from the creation of pickled Japanese plums. To make pickled plums (or umeboshi), you have to place the plums in a barrel of salt, which draws out the plum’s juices. The plums soak in this salty plum juice until they’re ready. This salty plum juice is what we call plum vinegar (even though it’s not actually vinegar).

To give beni shoga its color, akajiso (red perilla) is often added, turning the ginger its signature red-pink color. Be aware that some places just use food coloring to get the same effect.

It’s popular as a topping that you can find at plenty of Japanese ramen shops, curry shops, beef bowl shops and more. However, to act as a topping, it needs to be small enough to eat, so cooks slice it thinly and short enough that customers can easily mix it into different dishes.

What is Beni Shoten?

Two sticks of fried beni shoga with a pale crispy coating
This tempura version of red pickled ginger combines the unique taste of ginger with a delicious, addicting crunch. Image via Japan Konamon Association

Now that we know all about beni shoga, we can talk about beni shoten. Beni shoten is the tempura version of red pickled ginger. Unlike the topping version, however, it has to be cut a bit thicker to give it the familiar bite of other tempura ingredients.

Some chefs will skewer several smaller (yet thick) pieces, while other chefs may use one long, thick slice for this dish. One other style is taking several small pieces and making a kind of block of ginger tempura.

Much like other fried foods, beni shoten goes great with a cold drink, especially beer, even with its slightly pickle-y taste. Now that we think about it, it’s almost like a Japanese version of fried pickles from the U.S.

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Where Did Beni Shoga Come From?

A hand holds a small clear cup of red-pink ume plum vinegar
The magic of ume vinegar is that it is great for pickles, dressings and more. Plus, it reduces waste. Image via Instagram (@chie_ie)

The exact origins of beni shoga aren’t known, but there are a few ideas. First, pickling is a way to preserve different foods and ginger may have helped prevent mold from growing in your pickling container. This means that ginger was just pickled with other veggies, and they just ate it.

Then, one day, someone in the Kansai area (some say it was Osaka) decided to pickle ginger with plum vinegar. The use of plum vinegar is said to come from the no-waste attitude of Kansai folks.

Back in the day, plum vinegar was just thrown out after the plums pickle. However, some brave soul had the idea of using that umeboshi byproduct in the pickling process, and that idea took off!

When Did Japan Start Frying It?

A block of beni shoga tempura sits on top of a bowl of soba
There's something about the tempura version of this dish that just goes so well with udon and soba. Image via Instagram (@bebichi1)

We actually don’t know why. In fact, we don’t even know when beni shoga tempura started or who first made it either? However, we know that the earliest known mention of this Osaka favorite was in the 1940 short novel Meoto Zenzai, a book set in Osaka during the Taisho (1912-1926) and Showa periods (1926-1989).

The novel briefly mentions beni shoga and other common ingredients being fried at a shop. This means that beni shoten was already popular among the common masses in Osaka by 1940.

Where Can I Find Beni Shoga?

If you come to Japan, you can literally find beni shoga anywhere. Supermarkets will always have it on offer and tons of restaurants use it as a topping. You can also find plain red pickled ginger online pretty easily. If you want to make it yourself, it’s also easy to make.

How to Make Beni Shoga

A thick okonomiyaki with a sauce, mayo, and beni shoga topping over yakisoba noodles
The slight spice and slight sourness of beni shoga adds a freshness that pairs well with flavorful dishes, like okonomiyaki and takoyaki. Image via Instagram (@hide)

Just buy a little bit of ginger root and Japanese plum vinegar, which is available online or at your local Asian market. Shiso is actually optional but will add a bit of extra color and sourness to the final product.

Sterilize a jar with hot water and/or alcohol.  Peel the ginger and cut off the tough spots. Cut the ginger into smaller pieces and then cut them julienne style. At this stage, you can either boil your ginger or just place in a bowl with salt and let it sit for 30 minutes.

Either way, make sure to get excess liquid out of your ginger by either leaving them out over a strainer or squeezing it out. Put the ginger into your jar and pour in your plum vinegar. You can eat it after a few hours, or you can wait a day or two to let it fully pickle.

Where Can I Find Beni Shoten?

Osaka folks and the rest of Kansai love beni shoten, so someone living in Osaka can find this dish at supermarkets (in their ready-made food section), tempura shops and at izakayas (Japanese pubs). If you want it overseas, you can find it at Japanese restaurants or you can make it yourself.

If you want to make beni shoten yourself and can find larger pieces of beni shoga, that’s great. However, you might have to make your own beni shoga first. In that case, just follow the steps above, but instead of julienning your ginger, just cut them to your desired thickness and length for tempura. Cut them too thin and you’ll end up with limp tempura (and we don’t love that).

A stick of beni shoga tempura with a golden-brown crust and a pink hue underneath
Beni shogaten is actually pretty easy to make as long as you have the red ginger and a good batter. Image via Instagram (@a2cg)

Once you have your pickled ginger, mix your tempura batter. Tempura batter is easy to make, usually being a mix of egg, cold water, flour, and potato starch. Dip your tempura in the batter and fry in vegetable oil to a tasty golden-brown. Let it cool for a second to avoid burning your tongue, and you have tasty beni shoten!

Now all there is to do is get out there and make that beni shoga and beni shoten until you’re a master. Have you ever tried red pickled ginger? What foods do you put it on? Have you ever eaten beni shoten? Let us know in the comments!

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