Why Umeboshi is A Must-Try Food in Japan

Every country has its own specialty, especially when it comes to food. These food specialties were thought of and made not just overnight, but through a process. They are usually a specialty in a certain country due to its origins and how it has been used throughout the history of the country. Through this long period of time, these foods have been highly developed and improved in order to better cater to the local taste of the citizens of that nation. The flavor, the ingredients, and just the way it is prepared and made shows not just how the locals handle their food but also their values in making them.

 Across Asia, several countries have specialty foods that tourists really travel for due to its fame. While Taiwan is known for its taro products and pineapple cakes and the Philippines is known for adobo and sinigang, the country of Japan is famous for their sushi, sashimi, katsudon, and mochi. On the other hand, many may not be aware that also one of the specialties of the Land of the Sun is umeboshi. This is one of the most common must-try foods in Japan as it is rarely seen anywhere else.

Umeboshi: The Sour and Salty Plum of Japan

Literally translating to “dried ume,” umeboshi is a pickled ume fruit that originated in Japan. It is among the most common foods prepared along with other staple dishes in a typical Japanese meal. Other translations of umeboshi include Japanese salt plumns, pickled plums, or just salt plums. While the name itself contains the word “plum,” umeboshi is not exactly a plum and is actually more closely associated to apricot. Ume, also known as Prunus mume, is a kind of tree in the genus Prunus that bears its fruits.

A type of pickles or tsukemono in Japanese, umeboshi is one of the general side dishes served along with steamed rice and miso soup in a traditional Japanese breakfast. Its extremely sour and salty flavor provides taste when eaten with rice, which can sometimes be a bit bland or plain in the mouth. Umeboshi are also sometimes placed on rice balls and eaten without even removing the pit. There are certain meals wherein umeboshi are served either boiled or seasoned. If the pickled ume is not dried, it is then called umezuke and not umeboshi.

The shape of umeboshi is usually round, though not perfect in shape. Its appearance may vary from a smooth surface to a very wrinkled one. Due to very high citric acid content, umeboshi usually taste very sour and salty so people who are into sour foods should definitely give umeboshi a try. On the other hand, there is also a sweeter version of umeboshi should one not be into sour and salty flavors.

One of the most well-known times for umeboshi was in the 1960s when they were kept inside lunch boxes or bento boxes. As these lunch boxes were made of plainly drawn aluminum at the time, the pickled plums were able to eat their way through the container. This was due to the combination of salt and organic acids in the umeboshi. This phenomenon was quite notorious at the time but should no longer be a problem in this day and age as bento boxes have improved through the years.

While there are a number of places in Japan that produce umeboshi, probably the most well-known place for the huge quantity and great quality of ume and umeboshi products is the central part of Wakayama prefecture. Many towns produce umeboshi but the most ume and umeboshi grown and produced come from the town of Minabe, Wakayama. Hence, if one would like new and tasty ume and umeboshi, heading on this town would definitely be worth it.

Harvesting for umeboshi occurs around the month of June when ume fruits ripen and are ready to be plucked. On the other hand, there are also some who harvest as early as May while drying time occurs in July or August when the rainy season is over. These ume fruits are the packed in barrels with salt. Because they are meant to be dried, their juices are first to be extracted. This is done by placing a weight on top of the fruits, which lets the fruits exude its juices in a gradual manner. These juices then accumulate at the bottom of the barrel and used and processed as a by-product of ume fruit.

On the other hand, making umeboshi these days are done by utilizing less salt than before. Pickling the ume fruit in either a seasoned liquid or vinegar is also among the common ways of industrial production of umeboshi these days. Due to the less salt being used in making umeboshi, artificial preservatives are used in order to extend their shelf life. To give more color to umeboshi, they are also usually dyed red with purple perilla herbs, also known as akajiso in Japanese. They may also be flavored with kombu, katsuobushi, and even honey to give a sweeter taste.

A Recipe on How to Make Umeboshi at Home

While it is no longer typical to make umeboshi at home, it would not hurt to learn how to prepare and cook them as this is more of learning first hand what one is eating. Homemade umeboshi consists of only 4 ingredients, namely, ume plums, red shiso leaves, coarse sea salt, and shochu, which is a kind of distilled alcoholic beverage that is common, cheap, and easily available in Japan.

When preparing the ume plums, ensure that they are firm and are a little bit small in size but still plump. One can buy ume plums from grocery stores that pick the ones without blemishes and cuts as these can lead to mold. Mold is the most common causes of making umeboshi fail, hence watch out for those.

Remove any remaining stems in the ume fruits but do so gently and carefully. Avoid piercing the plum as this would lead to mold, which is something that needs to be prevented the most. Possibly the best method of removing the stems is by utilizing a cocktail stick. After all the stems have been removed, wash the ume plums in around two to three changes of water. Then, let the ume plums soak in cold water overnight to let out some of the bitterness of the fruit.

Come the morning after, drain the water and dry the ume plums. In a bowl of shochu, dip the ume fruits completely. This is to eliminate bacteria and any kind of mold spores that appear on the surface of the fruit. After which, it is time to sprinkle some salt over the ume fruits for pickling. Coarse sea salt is recommended when preparing umeboshi and not the fine ones.

About 15 to 20 percent of the weight of the ume plums should be the amount of salt to be used to sprinkle on the fruits. The salt also serves as an agent that reduces or eliminates the risk of mold growing in the fruits. Only half the amount of the salt should be sprinkled on top of the ume. Ensure that the ume fruits are contained in a bowl so as to avoid making a salty mess. Shake the bowl in order to cover the fruits with sea salt. Then, it is time to put the salted ume in a sterilized container made of ceramic or plastic. Sprinkle the remaining salt on top of the ume fruits.

Place a wooden lid or plate on top of the ume and make sure they are sterilized. On top of that, place a sterilized weight that is as heavy, if not a bit heavier, than the weight of the ume plums. Place a thin paper on top to cover the container and tie a string around it. Leave the container in a cool and dark place and let the ume exude its juices for a number of days.

For the color of umeboshi, prepare red shiso leaves, which gives that red appearance of umeboshi. Around 10 percent of the weight of the ume plums should be should for shiso leaves. Wash the leaves and remove any tough stems attached. After cleaning, sprinkle a little bit of salt on the leaves and massage with the hands until the leaves become limp. After which, place them on top of the ume fruits that are now being pickled in umezu. Again, place the lid and weight on top of the ume.  The weight this time should weigh just about a half of the weight of ume. Cover the lid and again leave in a cool and dark place.

When drying time comes, place the ume fruits one by one on a bamboo mat and place them under the sun to dry. This usually takes up to three days to dry. A sign that it is ready to be stored is when the surface of umeboshi turns a bit white or white-ish. To top it all off, complement the food with a glass of green tea or any other drink mixed with shochu and hot water.

Ume Paste and Vinegar: The By-Products of Umeboshi-Making Process

Because ume fruits are usually dried in order to make umeboshi, the juices contained in ripe ume fruits are extracted first. This is so as not to waste any part of the ume fruits. The sour and salty liquid that comes from the ume fruit is then sold as ume vinegar or umezu in Japanese. However, it is important to note that umezu is not exactly true vinegar. Also known as ume plum vinegar, umezu is commonly used as a seasoning in Japanese cuisines. Not only used locally, umezu is also used by other chefs around the world as well.

On the other hand, another product made from ume fruits are ume paste. Ume paste is usually used to improve the flavor and sometimes even presentation of dishes. Because it has a sour and salty flavor, ume paste gives of that tangy taste perfect for people who are into sour and salty foods.

Health Benefits of Consuming Umeboshi Found in Onigiri and Makizushi

While umeboshi is typically served with rice and is eaten in small quantities, it is also a common ingredient in other Japanese products. One of the main Japanese products that have umeboshi as its ingredient is onigiri. For those who are not aware what onigiri is, it is a rice ball wrapped in dried seaweed, also known as nori in Japanese. Umeboshi is also sometimes used in making makizushi. Typically, umeboshi in makizushi is either pitted or come in the form of umeboshi paste as the latter is cheaper to make.

Back in the day, umeboshi was among the top foods to be eaten by samurais as it is believed to fight against battle fatigue. A cure for colds and flu before was rice congee or okayu in Japanese, served with umeboshi. Eating umeboshi is typical in Japan with almost all stores carrying and selling packs of umeboshi. Even candy stores even sell prepackaged pickled ume, also known as karikari ume in Japanese, that are crunchy and popular with children.

In a hundred gram of umeboshi, it contains elements that provide nutrition for the body. This includes 440 mg of potassium, 0.23 mg or manganese, 0.02 mg of vitamin B1, 0.01 mg of vitamin B2, and 3.6 grams of dietary fiber. Furthermore, it contains 0.9 grams of protein, which strengthens the muscles of the body for mobilization. Also, it has 10.5 grams of carbohydrate, which gives the body energy to continue facing the day. And of course, it also consists of 22.1 mg sodium, which provides that salty flavor to umeboshi.

Hence, when visiting the Land of the Sun any time of the year, one should not pass up trying out umeboshi. While it may not be to everyone’s taste, at least trying them out and experiencing the flavor of umeboshi should suffice. This is so at to somehow understand why the Japanese love their umeboshi.