Umeboshi (梅干し), sometimes called “Japanese salt plums” or “pickled plums,” are a salty and sour pickled fruit. Though ume are often called plums when translated into English, they technically are more closely related to apricots than plums. They’re a popular tsukemono (漬け物), or ‘pickled item,’ often eaten on top of rice.
Umeboshi is commonly served in the morning; this is because the citric acid contained in the pickled plum supposedly sterilizes the intestines and help aid in digestion throughout the day. In fact, in 12th century Japan, in the early stages of umeboshi development, it was considered only as a medicine, popular among monks and often carried by samurai in order to revive their strength. Some samurai even carried it hoping that it could help pull them back from the brink of death! Around the 17th century, umeboshi began to make its way into the Japanese household. Originally it was purely used as an additive to a green tea and kombu mixture to be used as a tonic, but it eventually made its way into Japanese dishes and as a side dish for rice.
The process used to make umeboshi is similar to many other pickling processes. The ume are sprayed with shochu (a distilled alcohol similar to vodka) and salted (around 15 or 20% of the weight of the ume is a common amount of salt used) and then left covered with a thin paper in a dark area for anywhere from two to four days. Next the ume are dyed its common red color with the use of red shiso leaves. After the coloring process, they are then dried by being spread on bamboo mats or baskets and then left in the sun for three or four days. After the umeboshi are dried they can be placed back in their juice and enjoyed after at least ten days.
Umeboshi comes in many different varieties from hachimitsu ume, a sweeter, honey flavored umeboshi often fed to younger kids who don’t like the sour taste of the plain umeboshi, to kari-kari ume, which are dried, crunchy umeboshi that perfect for an on the go snack. There are also different types of umeboshi candy as well. Umeboshi candy can range from sour flavors that stay true to the original umeboshi flavor to sweeter flavors more often associated with candy.
When it comes to umeboshi, you aren’t just limited to eating it in or on top of rice. There’s a large range of ways to mix umeboshi into your everyday cooking. It can be chopped up and mixed with dough to make ume bread. It can also be made into more savory dishes, like nikumaki (肉巻). To make nikumaki, you use bainiku (梅肉), literally “ume meat,” which is essentially umeboshi ground into a paste. The bainiku is spread over slices of pork, almost like a marinade or a rub, and the pork is wrapped around food like enoki mushrooms and shiso leaves, then baked and covered with soy sauce. If you want to cook with umeboshi or enjoy the health benefits, but don’t want such a strong salty flavor, you can cut down on some of the saltiness by soaking it in water for at least 30 minutes before cooking or eating the umeboshi.
Umeboshi isn’t just for eating though! There are also a large variety of drinks that can be made using umeboshi. A simple “umeboshi tea” can be made by boiling water and adding an umeboshi to a cup of the hot water, then mashing the umeboshi into the water after it’s had about a minute to soak. The same drink can be made with hot sake in place of the water, too. Umeshu (梅酒) is a drink that can be bought premade. It’s a shochu drink made from seeping ume fruits in alcohol; you can even buy it with the ume still in the bottle!
At Asahi we sell many varieties of umeboshi. We sell the original, salty umeboshi, low sodium umeboshi and hachimitsu flavors. You can also buy umeboshi candy and various brands of umeshu. Neri ume or plum paste is also available in a convenient ready-to-use squeeze tube for cooking. There are lots of varieties of dried rice toppings and mixes that are ume flavored as well. And of course, we sell fresh made-in-store umeboshi onigiri on weekdays. Remember, an umeboshi a day keeps the doctor away!