If you were to open up a Japanese bento box, you would find many familiar and unfamiliar foods inside: anything from salmon to fried chicken, or tempura and tamagoyaki, a sweet rolled omelet; there might be tsukemono or a potato croquette, or fresh cherry tomatoes; and maybe even some fresh fruit, if you’re lucky!
And of course, there will always be rice, often made into cute shapes: Totoro, Hello Kitty, a panda – or even a Japanese flag. If you find that Japanese flag in your bento, you’ll notice that in the centre of that square of rice is a single pinkish-red, wrinkled fruit. That little red fruit is umeboshi, a pickled plum, and that sour fruit, ume, has a long history in Japan.
What is ume?
Ume is often translated to “Japanese plum,” but it is, in fact, a type of apricot. (Forgive me if I slip up and still call it plum!) It came from China to Japan many hundreds of years ago, and over time it changed to adapt to the Japanese climate and became more sour. The fruit is used most often when unripe and green, and the plum blossoms are often referenced to in poems and art, as they are the first to bloom in spring.
You may be familiar with the version of ume I mentioned before, umeboshi—ume that is pickled and dried. Umeboshi has many health benefits; a common story you might hear is that long ago Japanese soldiers would eat umeboshi before battle for energy and after battle to recover their strength. This was probably because Japanese ume has a high amount of citric acid, which aids in burning the lactic acid that builds up in muscles during exercise. In addition to the energy boost, ume was useful because it contains benzaldehyde, which prevents food from going bad and food poisoning.
In my experience, umeboshi is deliciously sour, salty, and has a lot of meat for such a small thing! I’m always delighted when I open up a bento and find one in there. That being said, it is extremely tart, and I really can only manage to eat one or two in a meal.
Opposite of umeboshi’s saltiness is the sweet and sour umeshu. Umeshu is commonly known outside of Japan as Japanese plum brandy or plum wine, and it is probably my favourite type of Japanese alcohol! It is made from ume, rock sugar, and shochu (a type of alcohol). Its sweetness makes it appealing even to people who don’t usually like alcohol. It can be found on shelves in the grocery store as well as the liquor shop, and many people make it at home.
Just this week I went to a friend’s house to see her new kitten. While I was there, we got to talking about umeshu, and she brought up two big jars her mother and grandmother had made. The date on the first one was 2016; the Japanese date on the second jar was 平成21年 (it’s currently 平成29年) which was eight years ago—2009! She gave me a taste of both, and the difference was staggering—the younger umeshu was light and fruity, while the older was deep and sour with only a hint of sweetness.
Besides umeboshi and umeshu, ume can be made into:
- umezuke (made just like umeboshi, but not dried in the sun)
- umezu (the leftover juices from umezuke, used to flavour food)
- ume juice (frozen ume and sugar, stored for a week)
- ume blossoms (as a garnish)
June is the month to buy green ume at the grocery store. At our local store, there was an island entirely dedicated to making umeshu—big glass jars, bags of rock sugar, bags of shiso leaves for flavour and colour, and cartons of shochu!
I’ve started up a batch of umeshu right now, tucked away under the sink!
Hopefully in several months I will be able to upload a successful Washoku Wednesday post – but until then, I will show you what I made with the leftover ume: ume juice!
The ingredients are simple enough – if you can find them!
Ume is easy to find in Japanese stores, but it might be more difficult to locate in the States. It’s also seasonal – June is the month when these babies go on sale.
The last two ingredients are easy – sugar and a glass jar with a good lid large enough to contain the amount of juice you want to make. Sugar is absolutely essential, as it keeps the plums from moulding, so make sure you have a lot!
First, I thoroughly rinsed the ume and patted them dry. Then, with a toothpick, I picked out the the stems.
Next, I froze the ume. It’s best if they’ve been in the freezer for at least 24 hours. (The ones I used for the umeshu were early ones, green (above), while the ones I used for this ume juice were a little riper, more yellow – just to explain the colour change!)
I sterilised a jar with boiling water (you can also rub the insides down with shochu), and then began layering the sugar and ume. The ratio I saw most often in recipes was 1:1, but the recipe at Kimchimari recommended something more like 1:1.5, because the sugar prevents the plums from moulding. I went ahead and just made sure that the ume were well-packed!
From there, all instructions said to place the jar in a cool, dark place. I was very worried—while we have no lack of dark places in our apartment, we are certain there is no cool place (trust me, our cats would have found it!) Our apartment is on the second floor and not well-insulated, and our AC unit is weak and very energy-consuming.
So I crossed my fingers and placed the jar under the sink. I placed a towel under it to catch the condensation from the jar and gently shook it every day. A couple of times I opened it up to stir the sugar that had settled at the bottom to dissolve it.
Eight days later I pulled it out for good—and it was perfect!
It smelled a bit like cherries, to be honest. It was both sweet and a little bit tart and absolutely delicious! I simmered it on the stove to thicken it just a bit and then poured it into a little wine bottle we had:
Now, since it is all basically sugar, it would probably be more aptly named ume syrup rather than juice, and it would be unwise to drink it straight. With this in mind, I had my very first taste of it mixed in with ginger ale. Delicious!
I’ve found since then that a glass of ice water with just a spoonful of syrup is a wonderful cool drink to beat this ridiculous Tatebayashi summer heat.
- 1 part ume
- 1.5 parts sugar
- 1 glass jar with a good, tight lid
- Wash and dry the ume. With a toothpick, pick out the stems. Freeze the ume in a plastic bag for at least 24 hours.
- Sterilise the jar with boiling water or shochu.
- Layer the ume with sugar. Make sure all of the ume are touching the sugar!
- Place in a cool, dark place. Gently shake the jar once every day. After a few days, open the jar and stir up any sugar caked at the bottom to dissolve it.
- After a week or so, remove the plums (or keep them to look pretty!) It will have the consistency of juice, so if you want to thicken it a bit, simmer it on the stove for a few minutes. Store the juice in a clean bottle or jar in the refrigerator. Enjoy!
Japan Products: History of Umeboshi (Pickled Ume)
Japan Talk, 7 Ways to Enjoy Japanese Ume
Washoku Guide, Ume Juice That’s Ready in 1 Week
Kimchimari, Green Plum Syrup (매실청 Maesil Chung)