Japanese cuisine has more than its share of acquired tastes, and umeboshi are near the top of the list. Intensely sour and salty, these traditional tsukemono (pickles) are prepared over several weeks, starting in June when the fruits of the ume tree are ripe, and finishing up in July under the hot midsummer sun. Ume are related to plums and apricots.
Making enough umeboshi to last the rest of the year was a task in most Japanese households for hundreds of years. Both of my grandmothers made a batch faithfully every summer, each tasting entirely different from the other. My paternal grandmother made pale, moist ones that were more sour than salty, and my maternal grandmother made umeboshi that were so salty that the surface glistened with crystals.
They both made their umeboshi in similar ways, but the differences came from the amount of salt used and how the fruit was handled. My father’s mother lived in a small house in central Tokyo and did not have a lot of room to spread out her umeboshi, so she kept the drying (hoshi) phase short, the salt fairly low, and disinfected her pots with shōchū liquor to ward off mold. My mother’s mother lived in a small town and had the space to give her umeboshi lots of sun and air and relied solely on salt and the natural acidity of the ume to preserve them. Her umeboshi were as wrinkled and brown as her well-worn gardener’s hands.
It’s the latter ones I remember most fondly despite their intense saltiness, because they are so interwoven with my childhood memories of summer. Every August my mother would participate in the age-old custom of sato-gaeri — going back to the small town where she grew up, offspring in tow, for a week or two’s holiday. When us kids got back home every late afternoon, exhausted and soaked in sweat from running around wild all day, our grandmother would give us an umeboshi each.
This was in the days when people used to believe (erroneously, as it turns out) that one needed to take in extra salt during the brutally hot and humid summer; for my grandmother, making her grandchildren eat her umeboshi was her way of ensuring that we stayed healthy. Even now when I bite into an umeboshi, memories come flooding back of sitting on the porch with my cousins, mouth puckering, knowing that I’d soon be rewarded with a tall, icy glass of mugi-cha (barley tea), and maybe some watermelon that had been chilling all day in the well.
The first written records of umeboshi appear as early as the year 200. Initially it was ume-su (ume vinegar), the sour-salty liquid byproduct of the umeboshi-making process, that was prized. The liquid was used as an antiseptic on wounds, as well as to clean and chelate metal items such as bronze mirrors and temple bells. (Ume-su was widely used as an antiseptic well into the 20th century, until more modern antiseptics became available.) In later times, both the pickled fruit and the vinegar were used to treat various ailments, especially of the stomach.
Umeboshi and ume-su were especially cherished in times of war. During the medieval Warring States period (1467-1573), they were valued for their long shelf life, and warlords across the land ordered the planting of bairin (ume groves). Umeboshi were thought to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, ward off food poisoning, and more.
These beliefs continued even into the 20th century, when soldiers carried bundles of umeboshi with them to the front. In the early Showa Era (1926-1989), the humble umeboshi became part of a national patriotic symbol: the hinomaru bentō, consisting of a rectangular bed of plain white rice with a single umeboshi in the middle, resembling the Japanese flag.
Nowadays, umeboshi can be bought in department-store food halls, supermarkets, convenience stores and even ¥100 shops. They range widely in price and quality; cheap umeboshi with artificial flavors are rather nasty, but at the high end they are a gourmet treat.
Traditionally, the best umeboshi come from Wakayama Prefecture, which was called the Kishu Domain during the Edo Period (1603-1867). It was mainly in this region, and during this time, that umeboshi pickled with red shiso (perilla) leaves came into being. These reddish-brown to bright purple-red delights are what most people consider to be the quintessential umeboshi. In recent years, though, umeboshi that are are less salty and marinated in dashi stock (which adds lots of umami) have gained popularity. There are also very low-salt umeboshi that still retain the sweetness of the fruit.
Are umeboshi good for you? Probably so — in moderation. The main “good” ingredient in umeboshi and ume-su is citric acid, which is a natural preservative and conservative, as well as an appetite inducer. White onigiri (rice balls) made with umeboshi filling keep for a longer time than onigiri made with other fillings, and a traditional dish to eat when you’re sick is some plain rice gruel flavored with umeboshi. However, the high salt content is not that good for you, so it’s probably best not to have more than a couple at a time.
Where umeboshi really shine is in the kitchen. Think of them as flavoring agents or condiments rather than pickles; start by using just a little in sauces or on plain rice and so on. Add an umeboshi to a marinade for meat, or put one in the poaching liquid when you poach a chicken for a subtle flavor.
You may find that once you get used to them, you become addicted to their salty-sourness. The first time my husband, who’s Swiss, popped one in his mouth, he almost spat it out in horror, but now he loves them even more than I do. One of his favorite quick lunches is pitted and chopped umeboshi, butter, a drizzle of soy sauce and toasted sesame seeds tossed with freshly cooked pasta. (I like to add a dash of Tabasco.)
The umeboshi section of a department-store food hall can be rather overwhelming, especially during the midsummer and yearend gift giving seasons. Besides the pickled fruit themselves, you can also find a variety of ume-su, ume paste (neri-ume) and umeboshi-based sauces.
Traditionally made umeboshi can keep for years, even decades, and if they do go bad (they turn black) it’s thought to be a very bad omen. However, modern low-salt umeboshi, especially ones marinated in dashi stock, do not keep so well, and must be kept refrigerated and eaten before the best-by date.
Not that many people make their own umeboshi these days, but some still keep up the tradition, including my mother. Hers are somewhere in between the ones by my two grandmothers — a bright reddish brown, somewhat dried but still moist and smooth, salty yet not overwhelming. To me, they are perfection.
Recipe: Ume-dashi dressing or dipping sauce
This refreshing and versatile sauce can be used as a salad dressing or as a dipping sauce for cold noodles. I make the sauce without any oil, and add a little oil before using it as a dressing. The oil helps the sauce to cling to the ingredients in a salad. If you don’t want to make dashi stock from scratch, use 1½ teaspoons of dashi granules dissolved into 400 ml of water instead.
Makes about 400 ml
Water — 400 ml
Dry konbu seaweed — 1 10-cm piece
Red shiso-type umeboshi — 4 large
Katsuobushi (bonito flakes) — ½ cup (1 small handful)
Sake — 1 tsp
Mirin — 1 tsp
Light soy sauce — 1 tsp
Ume-su — 2 tbsp
Prepare the dashi stock by steeping the konbu seaweed in the water for 20 minutes, then bringing to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer.
While the konbu seaweed is steeping, pit the umeboshi and chop the flesh finely until it becomes a paste.
Put the stones into the dashi stock and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the mirin and sake, and simmer an additional 5 minutes. Add the bonito flakes. Turn off the heat, and leave until cooled down to lukewarm. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve.
Add the soy sauce, chopped umeboshi and ume-su. Mix well. Let cool, and store in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid in the refrigerator until ready to use. It will keep for a couple of weeks.
To use as a salad dressing, mix 2 tablespoons of the sauce with ½ tablespoon of a light-flavored vegetable or olive oil. The best method is to put both in a small glass jar with a lid (not the one you store the sauce in) and shake vigorously.
You can also use the sauce straight up as a dipping sauce for cold udon or hiyamugi noodles; it makes an interesting change from regular noodle dipping sauce. If the sauce is too salty as-is, dilute it with a little water. Add thinly sliced myōga ginger, finely chopped green onion and toasted sesame seeds as garnish.