Umeboshi Plums - The Daily Japanese Superfood
Umeboshi are sour, salty Japanese pickled plums. Well-known for their strong taste, umeboshi are commonly eaten as a complement to many Japanese meals. What exactly are umeboshi, and how are they made? Uncover the mystery behind this very Japanese pickle, and find out what makes it a very healthy addition to any diet.
Oct 04 2021
Umeboshi and Other Pickled Foods in Japan
Pickled foods are quite popular in Japan. Classified under the umbrella term “tsukemono,” which means “pickled thing,” they encompass everything from ginger to daikon to what we in the west would consider “pickles,” or cucumber. However, unlike western pickles, which are usually pickled in vinegar, Japanese pickles largely rely on a brine of salt or fermentation to achieve a pickled state.
Among the large number of pickled fruits and vegetables Japanese people consume, one of them—the umeboshi— stands out as unique for both its enduring popularity and taste. Dating from the Heian era, over a thousand years ago, umeboshi play a nutritive and healing role in the Japanese diet.
What Are Umeboshi?
“Umeboshi” (literally “dried plum”) are the pickled fruit of the Japanese plum tree. Blooming in late winter with red, pink, and white flowers, both the plum and cherry trees are heralds of spring in the Japanese seasonal lexicon (for more on Japanese flowers, see our hanakotoba article). The fruit is called “ume,” and although it is translated as “plum” in English due to its visual similarity, it is actually more closely related to the apricot.
Ripened ume give off a sweet aroma that has hints of their apricot cousin. Unlike apricots and plums, however, ume are quite small and usually aren’t eaten by themselves, but rather they are turned into a variety of products. Umeshu (plum wine), ume juice, and ume jam are just some of the many different uses of ume. Within this variety of products, umeboshi reign supreme in terms of popularity and general consumption.
Umeboshi Health Benefits
Umeboshi won’t give you a lot of nutrition or calories, outside a smattering of potassium and dietary fiber. What you do get with umeboshi is sodium, and a lot of it. Traditional umeboshi can be upwards of almost a quarter salt, whereas reduced versions will see that percentage dropped to 15% or 10%. This is a lot of salt.
The saltiness, in combination with its sour taste, has made it the go-to solution for many common ailments. Supposed uses of umeboshi can range anywhere from a digestive aid (it is apparently anti-bacterial!), to hangover cure, to fatigue relief. Some even claim it protects against aging! In Japanese parlance, eating an umeboshi daily is the equivalent of the American “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” as a sort of folk wisdom.
Whether or not the above are true is up for debate. What is true, however, is that umeboshi are an extremely efficient salt-delivery vehicle. For that reason, if you eat too many it's very easy to stray into excessive sodium-consumption territory. One per day should be fine if you otherwise manage your sodium intake well, but any more and you’re risking the complications that come from sodium overconsumption.
Even the sweeter variants, which might mask their saltiness, still contain a lot of salt. This won’t be an issue for most people as long as they watch their diet and don’t eat too many.
How Are Umeboshi Made?
The ume are usually harvested in June, when they ripen. From there, they are stuffed into barrels and soaked in a brine solution of water and 20% salt. This solution, over the course of several weeks, will slowly pickle the fruits, extracting the juice and imparting a salty, sour flavor. This process will result in a product called “umezuke,” meaning “pickled ume.”
Although umezuke can be eaten directly from the solution, the flavor and saltiness will be extremely strong. Instead, umezuke are usually taken from the pickling solution and dried in the sun, turning into true umeboshi. In some instances, the large seed in the center is removed for easy consumption when dried. Otherwise, the ume will be removed from the solution, dried for several days, and processed again in another solution, either to dye them a deep red color using “akajiso”(red perilla) or to add extra flavors or sweeteners such as “katsuobushi” (bonito flakes) or honey.
Sometimes, they are also simply desalinated to reduce the salt content and make them more palatable. When the umeboshi are reprocessed, the removal of salt requires the insertion of new preservatives, which may change the flavor. This is the umeboshi you often find in the store.
How to Make Umeboshi - Can You Make Umeboshi at Home?
Like with most pickled foods, the process to make them isn’t very difficult, and it just comes down to making sure you measure out your salt correctly and properly time the pickling process. If you have access to a large amount of ripe ume, you too can make your own umeboshi at home. To do this, all you need are two or three ingredients.
The Simplest Umeboshi Recipe
First, you need a decent amount of ripe ume, which look yellow. Make sure to discard any that are damaged or bad looking. You’ll also need sea salt(not table salt) and, optionally, you can add red shiso, which gives the umeboshi a hearty red color, but isn’t required.
For equipment, you’ll need a large pot, a weight, and a straining net. To make the umeboshi, simply add the ume to the pot along with 20% of the ume’s weight in salt (this is very important for the pickling and preservation process!). After adding this in, use a large plastic lid with weights on top to press on the ume, which will help the salt pull the moisture from the fruit.
After two weeks of pickling in the pot, you can stir in the whole red shiso leaves for a couple of days, or otherwise wait for a period when at least 3 back-to-back sunny days are forecasted so that you can dry the plums outside in the straining net. Once they’ve been dried, you can store them in a large mason jar or other storage container and they should stay preserved for a very long time!
The Different Kinds of Umeboshi
Umeboshi come in all kinds of flavors and textures. The most basic and common is wet umeboshi, which is eaten with minimal amounts of drying. These umeboshi can encompass any number of different flavors, depending on how much processing the umeboshi underwent after its initial pickling. Basic umeboshi will be very sour and salty, which, to the novice, might be too strong.
Umeboshi that are re-soaked are often less salty, though they will still retain their powerful sour flavor. The addition of katsuobushi will give it a smokey, fishy flavor, while akajiso will turn its normally pinkish color a deep red. The easiest umeboshi for beginners to eat are the sweet variant, soaked in a solution that includes honey, as the sweetness balances out the inherent sourness of the ume.
The other very common variant of umeboshi is the dried kind. These are often pitted, removing the large seed in the center and creating a small, thin snack. These can be covered in all sorts of extra flavors, with salt or sugar added to increase palatability. However, for the most part, the dried snack variant is designed to be incredibly salty, even more than the wet variant as the lack of brine/water means the snack is basically just ume and salt.
How to Eat Umeboshi
For the most part, dried umeboshi is eaten as a snack. Sold in small packets, many Japanese people eat the dried version in a similar way that people drink a sports drink, as a way to replenish energy after working out or being outside for a long time on a hot summer’s day. The sharp taste combined with its extreme salt content works wonders for combating heat fatigue and lethargy that comes from being in the sun or exercising a lot. Some popular ways to enjoy umeboshi include:
Umeboshi Over White Rice
Wet umeboshi has more varied uses. Due to its strong taste, both saltiness and sourness, umeboshi is usually combined with rice. The most basic way to eat umeboshi is over a bowl of white rice, where the flavor will be spread out and diluted.
Another common food that umeboshi are found inside (or on top of) is "onigiri" (rice balls). Sometimes they are the only filling, and other times they are paired with other ingredients, as with the ubiquitous "ume kombu" onigiri found in pretty much every convenience store.
Umeboshi Okayu and Umeboshi Ochazuke
Two other dishes that include umeboshi are “okayu” (rice porridge), the traditional Japanese cure for the common cold, and “ochazuke” (tea-based broth poured over rice and other toppings), a common way to finish leftover rice. In both cases, umeboshi is akin to dropping in a flavor tablet, balancing the strong taste of the umeboshi with the plain taste of rice.
Popular Umeboshi-Based Foods and Drinks
Umeboshi paste is exactly what it sounds like. It usually comes in a glass jar and can be used pretty much the same way that normal umeboshi can. It goes great on rice, in onigiri, or as a tangy addition to a homemade salad dressing.
Umeboshi-flavored candies are another popular type of product in Japan that have been around for a long time. They come in a range of types, but all share the distinct sour and salty flavor of umeboshi. The picture above shows an umeboshi-flavored "shio ame" (salt hard candy) that is supposed to help restore electrolytes as well as just being tasty to suck on. Other commonly-seen ume candies are "ume kombu" (strips of kombu seaweed coated with sour umeboshi-flavored powder), and "umeneri," which is a chewy yet tough candy that has a flavor very close to a real umeboshi
In recent years, lemon sours have seen a boom in Japan, with many different brands releasing various versions of the drink. A variation on this drink is the "ume sour" which replaces the lemon with umeboshi flavor instead. The sourness and saltiness of the umeboshi flavor goes great with sparkling water and alcohol, making for a great, refreshing drink.
Where to Buy Umeboshi
In Japan, umeboshi can be found at any supermarket. Outside of Japan, though, it can be a bit trickier to get your hands on them. If you live in a city that has a Japanese supermarket, you should almost certainly be able to find a pack for sale there. Otherwise, the best option is to look online. A quick google search for "buy umeboshi online" should turn up more than a few options.
What Do Umeboshi Taste Like?
Umeboshi are both intensely sour and salty at the same time. However, there is a surprisingly large variety of umeboshi on the market, so there is no definitive answer to the question of "what does umeboshi taste like?" Some homemade umeboshi can be so intensely salty that they are difficult to eat, while others for sale at the supermarket might be soaked with honey and contain less than 7% salt, making them fairly sweet and easy to eat. In general though, salty and sweet are the flavors of umeboshi.
Do Umeboshi Need to Be Refrigerated?
As described above, some umeboshi are dried and don't need refrigeration, whereas other umeboshi are wet, and do need refrigeration to prevent spoilage. In general, umeboshi are stored in the refrigerator, however.
Are Umeboshi Expensive?
Umeboshi range in price based on the area where the fruit was produced, as well as the size and quality of the ume used. Umeboshi using imported ume grown in China can be quite cheap, going for just a few hundred yen for a pack, while umeboshi using high-end Japanese-grown ume can easily go for ten times the price.
Is Umeboshi Dangerous?
As long as they are consumed in moderation (one or fewer per day) and balanced with your sodium intake from the rest of your diet, umeboshi are not dangerous. On the contrary, they are said to have many health benefits, as described above.
Add a Salty, Sour Punch to Your Diet With Umeboshi!
While it may take a bit of time to acquire the taste, once you do, umeboshi become a delicious addition to a healthy diet. Using them either as a pick-me-up after a hard day outside or as a healthy addition to a breakfast rice bowl, umeboshi deliver flavor in spades. Starting with salty or sweet, you too can build a healthy habit out of the fruit. Buy some or make it yourself and try umeboshi today!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.