To all of you who have grown up eating umeboshi when we were kids this is more than you wanted to know. If you never had umeboshi, read on…
Umeboshi is a salty, sour pickle that we often eat in a musubi or rice ball or, when we are sick, with okai or o-kayu (rice gruel). In Japan , it is usually served with breakfast gohan or rice, with a cup of tea. Food authority Robbie Swinterton compares eating an umeboshi to the culinary equivalent of taking a cold shower. ‘The abrupt, searingly tart, tangy, salty taste jolts the eyes open, shakes the stomach awake, sandpapers off any staleness from the taste buds, and gets the day off to an unforgettable start.’
We have always known umeboshi as a pickled plum but it is actually a Japanese apricot, prunus or Armeniaca mume. If you examine the pit, it resembles an apricot more than a plum. So how are umeboshi made, you ask.
From mid-June to mid-July, the rainy season in Japan , the fruit is soaked in water to get rid of its bitter taste. Then it’s drained and wiped dry, and sprayed with shochu, or Japanese distilled rice liquor. They are then put in a container for pickling, mixed with salt and weighted down with a heavy stone. Pressing the fruit down is a very important in the making of umeboshi, which takes about six weeks. After that, perilla leaves (beefsteak) or shiso are washed, sprinkled with salt, all excess liquid squeezed out, leaves broken apart and combined with the salted ume. The heavy stone is again placed over the mixture, which is allowed to pickle for another week. During a sunny day at the end of July, the fruit is dried outside for three days and nights.
The center of umeboshi industry is in Ryujin village, in Wakayama Prefecture , on the main island of Honshu . Their traditional method of making umeboshi is a ‘lactic-acid fermentation’ process, one of the oldest and safest ways of preserving food. Wakayama umeboshi is mellow and not as salty as the typical umeboshi we know. Lactic-acid-forming bacteria grows and creates an acidic environment, and emits carbon dioxide that contributes to the favorable anaerobic condition and further stimulates the growth of the good bacteria. Salt, rice vinegar, and shiso leaves are added. After a year of aging, the remaining red liquid is bottled and sold as umeboshi vinegar. This condiment is versatile for making dressing and is available locally at the natural foods stores and some supermarkets.
The best, most prized and most expensive umeboshi is called the Kishu ume from the Wakayama Prefecture . Aged 5 years, it has the thinnest skin, the smallest seed and a soft, thick fruit. Eight large, individually wrapped Kishu ume costs about $30. (Rather pricey but very good.)
The first umeboshi was found in China , where a dried smoked plum, called ubai, was discovered in a tomb more than 1,000 years ago. It was used to prevent fatigue, purify water, rid the body of toxins and cure dysentery, typhoid and food poisoning. The first umeboshi appeared before the Nara period in the years 710-794, and was first introduced as a medicine.
During the samurai period, umeboshi flavored the samurai’s rice and vegetables, and purified his water and food. It also helped samurai suffering from battle fatigue.
About 200 years ago, the Japanese made a plum extract, or ‘bainiku ekisu.’ They made this extract by slowly cooking sour green ume fruit to obtain the most active ingredients in a highly concentrated form. The resulting dark, sticky, thick liquid is mixed with hot water and honey and drunk as a tonic. The dried form of this extract is formed into pills and called ‘meitan.’ Because this extracting process contains no salt, it is a treatment for high blood pressure.