“The abrupt, searingly tart, tangy, salty taste jolts the eyes open, shakes the stomach awake, sandpapers off any staleness from the taste buds, and gets the day off to an unforgettable start.”
In some Japanese cities it is not unusual to see a small, seventeenth-century, tile-roofed Buddhist temple nestled between tall, modern glass office buildings. Even in the more traditional countryside, the contrast between old and new can be stark. While one family sits at a contemporary Western-style dinner table eating imported steak, their more typical neighbours are seated on the floor eating rice and miso soup with chopsticks.
However, when it comes to Japanese pickled plums, or umeboshi (literally, dried plum), everyone seems to agree that there is no modern substitute for its zesty palate-cleansing flavour and fast-acting medicinal effects.
Even today, some traditional Japanese people begin the day with two pickled plums and a cup of tea. British author and Japanese food authority Robbie Swinnerton compares umeboshi’s taste to the culinary equivalent of a cold shower. “The abrupt, searingly tart, tangy, salty taste jolts the eyes open, shakes the stomach awake, sandpapers off any staleness from the taste buds, and gets the day off to an unforgettable start.”
But besides their dramatic flavour, writes Swinnerton, “Japanese pickled plums have remarkable medicinal qualities. Their powerful acidity has a paradoxical alkalinizing effect on the body, neutralising fatigue, stimulating the digestion, and promoting the elimination of toxins. This is the Far Eastern equivalent to both aspirin and apple; not only is it a potent hangover remedy for mornings after; more than that, an umeboshi a day is regarded as the best preventive medicine available.”
Although particularly effective for all sorts of stomach disorders from hyper-acidity and indigestion to ulcers, umeboshi also increases endurance and stimulates the liver’s and kidneys’ function of dissolving and expelling toxins, thus purifying the blood. As every Japanese housewife learns at an early age, umeboshi’s powerful anti-bacterial properties make it very effective in preventing rice from spoiling. Ancient medical texts also credit umeboshi with preventing food poisoning. Umeboshi’s alkalinizing effect makes it a wonderful general tonic. Added to “soft rice” (rice cooked 7-10:1 with water until very soft), umeboshi is the Japanese cure-all for sick children.
Like many of Japan’s ancient medicinal foods, the origin of the pickled plum is obscure. One theory traces it to China, where a dried smoked plum, or ubai, was discovered in a tomb built over two thousand years ago.
The ubai is one of China’s oldest medicines and is still used for a variety of medical purposes such as counteracting nausea, reducing fevers, and controlling coughs.
The oldest Japanese record of pickled plums being used as a medicine is in a medical text written about one thousand years ago. Umeboshi were used to prevent fatigue, purify water, rid the body of toxins, and cure specific diseases such as dysentery, typhoid, and food poisoning. Slowly, extensive folklore developed about umeboshi’s ability to prevent and cure certain diseases.
During Japan’s furious samurai period, which lasted through most of the Middle Ages, the pickled plum was the soldier’s most important field ration. It was used to flavour foods such as rice and vegetables, and its high acidity made it an excellent water and food purifier, as well as an effective antidote for battle fatigue.
Umeboshi are made by alternately soaking unripe Japanese ume in brine, then sun-drying and returning them to the brine. The pink colour of umeboshi is derived from red shiso leaves, which are pickled together with the ume. Red shiso (perilla) is a mineral-rich herb, particularly high in iron.
In addition to lending its beautiful colour, shiso adds its abundance of minerals to the high concentration of vitamin C and other virtues of the ume. Umeboshi is available in two forms: whole plums pickled with or without shiso leaves, and umeboshi purée, a convenient purée made from pitted umeboshi.
Although there are many natural producers of pickled plums in Japan, few use the year-long traditional process of Clearspring’s two suppliers: the Sogawa family and the Morisho family. Fewer still use organically grown plums and high-quality sea salt.
In fact, the umeboshi found in many Oriental food stores are made in just a few weeks using red dye, citric acids, and commercial salt. To be sure that you are buying the finest-quality pickled plums, check the ingredients on the label. Sogawa-style pickled plums are made with organic plums, organic shiso leaves, and sea salt.
Umeboshi plums and purée are lively and versatile seasonings that add a pleasant tartness to salad dressings, cooked vegetables, and sauces. They are also commonly served in Japan as a condiment with rice, or tucked inside a rice ball wrapped with nori.
In summer enjoy thick cucumber rounds spread thinly with umeboshi purée. Sparingly spread on cooked sweet corn it is more healthy and just as delicious as butter and salt. Umeboshi also goes well with members of the cabbage family, including broccoli, kale, and cauliflower.
As mentioned above, umeboshi is also used as a home remedy that is especially effective for aiding digestion and eliminating toxins. Here is an example of such a remedy: