Cooking With Umeboshi Is Simpler Than You Expect. Here's What The Experts Suggest

Umeboshi three-ways
Umeboshi three-ways - Static Media / Shutterstock / Getty

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You awaken late and roll out of bed, gazing wistfully out the window at Mount Fuji. You dress quickly, eager to head to a nearby eatery and tuck into a nutritious breakfast. Your server emerges with an arm laden with plates that suggest they know something about gravity that you don't. One plate, in particular, catches your eye. A semi-deflated red blob tops a perfect rectangle of white rice. Your chopsticks dart forward, seemingly propelled by some agenda of their own, and you place the blob in your mouth in one. In an instant, your lips pucker. You have tasted the rising sun, and it bit back.

Umeboshi is a staple Japanese condiment that's rather enigmatic outside of Japan. It's a pickled plum, except that it isn't. It's a salty-sour sphere that holds disease-fighting and energy-enhancing properties and is a good luck charm in fruit form. It's also essential if you're planning to eat your way through Japan (here are 30 Japanese dishes you need to try while you're at it). Tasting Table caught up with Rodney and Masako Fisher of Yumesato Farm in New Zealand, experts in growing ume, to do a deep dive into all things umeboshi and how it can be used in cooking and beyond. The pair have been growing ume since 2006 and have since become makers of both umeboshi and other umeboshi-based products like miso dressing, paste, vinegar, syrup, and jam.

Read more: What Happens If You Accidentally Eat Mold?

What Is Umeboshi, And How Is It Used?

Offering an umeboshi by chopstick
Offering an umeboshi by chopstick - Nishihama/Shutterstock

When ume, a small fuzzy spherical fruit, meets heat and salt, you get the salt-kissed flavor bomb Japanese delicacy that is umeboshi. But the salt-kissed flavor bomb is almost constantly typecast as plum and has been from day dot, and the deception runs linguistic-level deep — ume translates to the word plum. In the ultimate culinary mic drop, Rodney Fisher tells us that "Ume is actually a type of apricot." Regardless of the misnomer, ume continues to be referred to as plums, ume vinegar as plum vinegar, and umeshu as plum liqueur, so it's safe to say the nickname has stuck. Ume has yet another name, too: mume. (However, this term experienced its heydey back in the Heian period and mostly isn't used anymore.)

"Umeboshi is simply ripe ume fruit pickled in salt," explains Rodney. It differs from umezuke, which is more of an intermediate between ume and umeboshi, which itself is salted but not sun-dried. Consequently, umezuke is softer and wetter than umeboshi. A further variant — kari kari ume — is a crunchy, salted plum made with unripe green ume.

Most often, umeboshi is served alongside other foods, such as a flavoring on top of sticky white rice. Umeboshi is also sometimes used to add a salty, tart flavor to green tea-steeped ochazuke soup. When pureed or chopped into a paste, umeboshi can be spread on a sandwich or used as the base of stir-fries. It's vinegar is good for dressing and finishes.

The Culinary History Of Umeboshi Is Ancient

Umeboshi tree with pink blossoms
Umeboshi tree with pink blossoms - tamu1500/Shutterstock

Ume has been highly revered in Japanese culinary culture and history since it made its first appearance in Japan at least as early as 300 BCE (thanks to the discovery of ume pits that have been dated accordingly) but it's actually endemic to China. The collective infatuation was initially centered on ume's purported medicinal benefits. It's been used against fever, nausea, diarrhea, colds, and more — and then broadened to include the bourgeoise-approved aesthetic of ume blossoms. They are just as pretty as the iconic cherry blossom, blooming in reds, whites, and pinks earlier in the year.

But it was practicality rather than embellishment that led to the creation of umeboshi. Formally consumed as raw snack foods or in medicinal tea, the ume-eater was once pitted against the clock. Salting and drying ume, however, extended their shelf life, which became very useful in the Sengoku Period (1491-1573), when umeboshi, combined with brown rice powder and sugar, formed the basis of an ancient pre-workout called umeboshigan, used to fuel warriors through battles.

Ume was continually used in medicine but also started trickling down into mainstream eating from about 1603 onwards, appearing first as festival fare and then as a daily snack. In contemporary culture, umeboshi is thought of as bringing good luck and good health along the same thought train as 'an apple a day keeps the doctor away.'

The Flavor Of Umeboshi Is Very Acidic

Pile of raw yellow ume
Pile of raw yellow ume - yuri-ss/Shutterstock

There's nothing lowkey about the taste of umeboshi — its signature tang can be confronting if unexpected. "A very acidic fruity taste with a very green under-ripe apricot taste," as Rodney Fisher describes. About the flavor of ume, he adds, "You wouldn't want to eat one, and your mouth would pucker with the taste." Though the smack of umeboshi carries elements of the fruit, they're notably altered by the drying and salting process. "Umeboshi still has an acidic and sour taste along with a very strong dose of salt. It works and is delicious," says Rodney Fisher.

Of course, there are regional variations. Fisher mentions that the taste can be impacted by a range of variables: the fruit itself, the type and quality of salt, and the time the ume time spends in the salt and sun all create an influence. Ambient temperature impacts the taste, too, with Fisher noting that cool nights make for more fruit-forward umeboshi. Some umeboshi-makers add additional flavors, like a mix of honey with bonito flakes, a quintessentially Japanese ingredient, and lower the salt content to the realm of 5-10% in the process.

Umeboshi Is Made With Salt, Pressure, And Sunlight

Salt-covered umeboshi plums
Salt-covered umeboshi plums - pepmint/Shutterstock

Like all food preparation, the process of turning ume into umeboshi is something of an art. It begins with growing ume, a carefully-architectured process that Rodney Fisher knows well. "Ume is grown in a traditional orchard setting of evenly spaced trees in rows to best utilize the sunlight." Only ripe ume is used for umeboshi. Unripe green ume are more suited to turning into umeshu (plum wine) or syrup. When ume ripens to the point of turning yellow or "blushed," it can be used for making umeboshi.

Only the best ume will be selected to become umeboshi. After grading, the selected ume is salted — Fisher says his operation uses only kosher, organic, and halal salt — and the salt percentage is carefully controlled. "In our case, we use around 20% salt to the weight of fresh ume. This is a very traditional amount. If you check, a lot of commercial umeboshi have lower salt and many additives," he says.

This salt concentration is a throwback to why umeboshi was created in the first place — higher than 18% prevents spoilage even without refridgeration. After layers of salt and umeboshi are made, Fisher explains that an equal amount of weight is placed on top of the salted fruit to create a pressing force. As it does, juices flow from the fruit, which the salt then collects. The salted ume are then sun-dried after which they resemble small, semi-deflated balls.

You Can Make Umeboshi At Home

Deep red umeboshi sun-drying
Deep red umeboshi sun-drying - smtd4/Shutterstock

The process for homemade umeboshi is basically the same as how it's done commercially. Fresh yellow ume will begin to appear in Japanese and Korean grocery stores across America in late May. You'll salt the ume in early June for at least seven days before adding red shiso leaves if using (these will dye the ume an especially vibrant purple-red hue) and then leaving the mixture for a month so that the salt can draw out the ume's moisture. Lastly, you'll rinse the ume and place them in the sun for three days until sun-dried and semi-deflated.

During the salting process, you'll notice your ume container filling with a liquid that's colloquially termed 'ume vinegar,' but Rodney Fisher explains it's more like "an acidic ume fluid and salt mix." The role of this 'vinegar' is two-fold. Predominantly, it acts as an additional natural preservative, protecting the ume from oxidation during the salting process, but it also provides a liquid medium for enhancing the umeboshi's natural coloring with shiso if you decide to do so. Some people choose to store the sun-dried umeboshi back in the ume plum vinegar to strengthen the salty flavor. Any excess can be whipped up into a salad dressing, a sore throat gargle, or even as a disinfectant for chopping boards.

Umeboshi Benefits From Simple Serving Styles

Cute bento box with umeboshi
Cute bento box with umeboshi - bonchan/Shutterstock

Historically wed to rice, umeboshi can be eaten (or drunk) in all manner of ways. Rodney Fisher enjoys umeboshi in an onigiri rice ball or just by itself like a sour candy but notes it's also popular in shōchū, a Japanese alcoholic drink. Umeshu is another way of imbibing umeboshi. It's Japan's sweet plum liqueur, which comes in two different forms. Then there's fuku-cha, a green tea-based, umeboshi-studded hot drink drunk at festivals to bring good luck.

In bento, umeboshi appears for two reasons: to prevent bacterial growth and for patriotism. Enter: Hinomaru bento. The minimalist lunchbox contains just a rectangle of white rice studded with an umeboshi in homage to the Japanese flag. Umeboshi can also feature as a topping in okayu — a warming rice porridge that is a must-try Japanese winter food — and ochazuke, a traditional dish of steamed white rice and toppings in a green tea soup. "The most interesting way we have tried is umeboshi baked cheesecake," Fisher tells us.

It's Packed With Health Benefits

Umeboshi stack on ceramic plate
Umeboshi stack on ceramic plate - gontabunta/Shutterstock

From the samurais of old to the weekend warriors of today, umeboshi was a superfood before 'superfood' was a buzzword. High in citric acid, which plays a key role in unlocking energy reserves, the flavor of umeboshi can power you through your day. Citric acid is also a preservative, giving umeboshi an antibacterial quality, which is why umeboshi vinegar makes a great cleaning product.

Similarly, umeboshi contains a mix of chemical components called phenols. Phenols also have antiseptic properties and appear in the full spectrum of cleaning products, from household to surgical. Umeboshi, or more specifically, umeboshi-derived ume vinegar, has been shown to reduce bad bacteria in the gut, making this vinegar a great immune boost.

There's, of course, one caveat to its health status — the salt. While the high salt content makes umeboshi great for replenishing electrolytes post-workout, the World Health Organisation advocates for lower sodium diets for everybody to boost global health, with people currently consuming over half of the recommended daily intake (2000 milligrams per day) of sodium on average. With this in mind, if you're considering adding a daily umeboshi into your diet, you might like to reduce your overall salt intake first. Umeboshi, therefore, isn't suitable for people with hypertension or cardiovascular disease, gastric cancer, obesity, osteoporosis, Meniere's disease, or kidney disease — all caused or worsened by a high sodium intake.

There Are Some Non-Culinary Uses For Umeboshi

A single plated umeboshi
A single plated umeboshi - reikaphoto/Shutterstock

There are many ways that umeboshi can be used outside meal times, from the hospital to the gym, but unlike late-night infomercials, which forever disappoint with extra special benefits that are just a second set of whatever wares they're pedaling, umeboshi's but-wait-there's-more is actually worth paying attention to: Hangovers be gone. Or, at least, umeboshi appears to make hangovers less of a beast. While you could chase a party with a greasy fried brunch (more likely to make you feel worse than better) and a cup of coffee (which will dehydrate you further), you might like to instead try popping a salted plum before going to bed and following up with an umeboshi tea the morning after.

Umeboshi makes the impact of last night's margarita-fuelled evening less hectic for three main reasons. The first is its high electrolyte content which will get that essential rehydration happening even when you feel like a shell of the human you once were. The second is citric acid, which will assist your liver in detoxifying the booze that's still sloshing around your body. Lastly, it'll allow you to tap into your energy reserves helping you to get on with life if you can't afford a nap. And for the skeptics, Japanese hangover cures are nothing to be sniffed at. After all, the Japanese word for it is futsukayoi, which literally translates to "two days drunk". Say less.

How To Store Ume And Umeboshi

Two jars of umeboshi
Two jars of umeboshi - aomas/Shutterstock

Born from salt (at least partially), umeboshi is practically immortal — the oldest umeboshi on record holds more than a 430-year vintage. The sun-drying process metaphorically wrings moisture from the fruit, reducing the risk of rot to almost zero, even if left at room temperature, making umeboshi a fantastic addition to your hiking menu. How umeboshi is stored, however, affects its texture. Umeboshi stored in ume vinegar is understandably juicer with a more intense flavor than those stored dry, in an airtight container.

It pays to be cautious with commercial umeboshi, however, as many pre-packaged options contain additional flavors and lower salt content than their traditional counterparts, which reduces their longevity. Rodney recommends storing umeboshi in glass containers. We'd add that the transparency does wonders for your kitchen aesthetics.

As for ume, storage protocols are a bit stricter. "Ume are a fresh fruit so have a limited shelf life which can be extended by cool storage but not for long," explains Rodney Fisher. So cooler temperatures are favorable for ume, but if you're thinking of popping them in the freezer, think again. "Freezing is not suitable as it ruptures the cell walls, and the ume could not be used for umeboshi or umeshu," says Fisher.

Where To Buy Umeboshi

Onigiri triangles with umeboshi naval
Onigiri triangles with umeboshi naval - akiyoko/Shutterstock

If you were in any doubt as to the superfood status of umeboshi, the price tag makes it inescapably clear — at $21.26 an ounce, it most definitely falls under 'wellbeing investment.' But unlike DIY coffee enemas, peppermint "sex bark," and an eight-day goats' milk binge (we're looking at you, goop), umeboshi is worth the coin, at the very least because nibbling on an umeboshi once in a while is a vote for ancient epicurean culture.

The upside is that you can buy umeboshi in practically all its forms. Amazon alone sells umeboshi plums in shiso, umeboshi paste, organic umeboshi vinegar, honey-dried plum snacksfurikake powder, and even umeboshi candies made from ripe plum puree, concentrated plum juice, and dried plum extract. If you do decide to buy your umeboshi rather than make it from scratch it's worth checking the ingredients. Ideally, you want to buy products that contain as little ingredients as possible. Namely, umeboshi plums, shiso, and salt.

How To Substitute Umeboshi

Lengths of red rhubarb
Lengths of red rhubarb - KarepaStock/Shutterstock

Umeboshi has an ultra-distinct flavor profile and is a unique part of Japanese culinary culture. Given its seasonality and expensive price tag, however, knowing a worthy substitute is valuable intelligence. A quick search offers up various stone fruits in lieu, as well as other specialty foods like Hing Mui that would likely be just as expensive to procure. Rhubarb, however, offers an interesting comparison to keep in mind.

Preparing rhubarb is much less high maintenance than ume and can be turned into umeboshi modoki (mock umeboshi) in a little over half an hour. Chop red rhubarb into thick moon slices (discard the leaves) and soak in water for 20 minutes to remove astringency. After, draining and salting rhubarb, you can cook it and then it mash. After that, it's ready to use as a condiment, just as you would umeboshi. It'll last for two weeks in the refrigerator. The astringent, slightly bitter, tangy, and fruit-vegetal flavors are not a one-for-one comparison, but they are a close mimicry for having the flavor of umeboshi in a pinch.

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