Get out the salt and pop open the white liqueur — the season for ume is upon us. The diminutive Prunus mume — referred to erroneously as a plum but technically an apricot — has hit the shelves and is available in its preferred unripe form for the next month and a half. Farmers growing these apricots take extra precautions — the fruit notoriously falls from the trees while still unripe, especially when disturbed by seasonal rains, lending its name to stormy July weather, tsuyu (“plum rain”).
Japanese employ two major traditional methods of dealing with ume: brewing (umeshu) and pickling (umeboshi).
Seasonally, umeshu comes first. You must use the hardest unripe bright-green fruit for the process. Families all over the country sit down to wash and destem the ume before pricking dozens of little holes in the skin to expose the meat to the alcohol in which they will steep the fruit. Macerated with rock sugar in the mysterious white liqueur, the apricots are left to imbue their flavor for several months. White liqueur is actually a very potent (usually 70 proof or higher) shochu, a distilled spirit made from rice, wheat, potatoes or a combination thereof. Drinkers imbibe umeshu, mostly over ice in the summer, as a tonic to improve blood circulation and soothe sore throats. Many commercially available variations are sticky, sweet and unpleasant, but a trend toward using better alcohol and less sugar has laypeople producing some very good product.
At Doko-e, we make umeshu with a shochu distilled from the lees of daiginjo sake; the result is a very dry liqueur that even nontraditional umeshu drinkers (read: men) enjoy. Home-brew kits — a bottle of white liqueur with a bag of rock sugar and instructions in Japanese — can be seen prominently displayed in liqueur stores and supermarkets through the season. Just supply the ume. Nankobai are considered the finest and with little trouble you have made your own dessert liqueur.
Umeboshi — salted, dried apricots — require a little more trouble and time, yet keep forever. A little elbow-grease investment will yield an offering that mellows and improves in flavor every year. In Japan, few chefs make their own umeboshi — most people consider ume the domestic realm of the housewife. But today, rather than the mother at home, it is the grandmother out in the country who keeps the tradition alive. This year I am scheduled to make my umeboshi with a friend’s grandmother to see if she can lend some additional wisdom to my process.
Traditional umeboshi are made with red shiso leaves for flavor and color. I use 18 percent salt by weight to the overall weight of the ume, enough to preserve the fruit and flavor without being too strong.
Washoku cooking expert Shizuo Tsuji tells us common apricots may be substituted for a similar result, but I have yet to try pickling them. Green shiso leaves may not be substituted for red. In times past, large ceramic jars were used when making umeboshi — today inexpensive buckets for pickling and the special lids and weights may be purchased at most housewares stores.
5 kg ume — yellow, but not yet sweet
1/2 cupwhite liqueur or other (90 cc) strong neutral spirit
900 g coarse salt (arajio) or kosher salt
1 kg de-stemmed red shiso leaves
200 g coarse salt or kosher salt
1) Wash fruit thoroughly and soak for eight to 12 hours to draw out the bitterness. Longer soaking will weaken the fruit and affect the results negatively.
2) Strain fruit and, with a toothpick, remove stem completely. Dry fruit with a clean soft towel and place in a large bowl with white liqueur, carefully making sure all the fruit is moistened.
3) Discard liqueur and remove fruit to a dry clean bucket wiped with a small amount of white liqueur to sterilize. Sprinkle 900 grams of salt over fruit and place lid and weight on top, covering top of bucket with a clean newspaper. Place in a cool dry place for 10 days.
4) After 10 days, remove newspaper, weight and lid, and ladle off all but enough liquid to cover the fruit. This liquid is called hakubaizu (white apricot vinegar); reserve some for the processing of the red shiso.
5) Wash de-stemmed shiso leaves and strain, squeezing out excess water. With 100 grams of salt, knead shiso and discard bitter liquid that results. Repeat, finally squeezing out as much liquid as possible. Moisten and knead shiso with 2 cups (360 cc) of reserved hakubaizu until color develops.
6) Add shiso and liqueur on top of the fruit and replace lid, weight and newspaper.
7) When the weather reports predict three-four days of clear skies (traditionally said to be around July 20), remove fruit to a screen and sun-dry, reserving liquid in bucket. At the end of the day return fruit to liquid. Repeat for three or four days. Finally discard the liquid and pack fruit with shiso on top in bottles for storage. Umeboshi are best after six months and will keep almost forever in a dry, cool place.