What is Umeboshi?
Umeboshi are processed pickled plums, a Japanese specialty. Umeboshi plums are commonly referred to as Japanese apricots or Chinese plums. When cooked, they actually look and taste more like apricots than plums. The thumbnail photo here shows green, unripe plums. Upon ripening, the fruits will turn a natural apricot color; after processing, the color becomes a reddish-purple.
Umeboshi is prepared with a generous layering of salt and leaves from the 18 to 24-inch tall, annual, aromatic herb Shiso (Perilla frutescens). The pigments in red Shiso transform the fruits to their appealing reddish-purple, 'plum' shade.
Shiso is the Japanese name for Perilla. There are many Perilla cultivars, both red and green. The red varieties (Akajiso) are used to color umeboshi and are called beefsteak plant (Perilla fruitescens) because of their color.
- Green Shiso has stronger essential oils and is commonly called 'Aojiso' or 'Japanese Basil'. Green Perilla is used as a substitute for Sweet Basil.
- Koreans call green Perilla 'Kkaennip' or Sesame leaf (no relation to sesame). The photo shows green perilla leaves getting prepared for a Korean dish called, Kkaennip Kimchi.
- Perilla is an easy-to-grow garden plant that is a flavorful garnish or addition to many foods, including: sushi, sashimi, tempura, Kkaennip kimchi, stews, soups, rice, vegetables and salads.
- Perilla self-sows in our South Jersey garden (zone 6b).
Many species of fruit trees have similar reference names and can easily be confused with the tree from which Umeboshi (Ume) plums are grown. Ume plums come from the plum tree, Prunus mume. Prunus salicina and Prunus japonica (also called: Japanese bush cherry) are different species of plum trees.
- Prunus salicina (syn. Prunus triflora) plum trees produce delicious plums and can be grown in the U.S. There are many cultivars including: 'Methley', 'Shiro', 'Satsuma' and 'Santa Rosa'.
Prunus mume trees are commonly called Japanese Apricot trees. They are native to China and Korea and were introduced to Japan from China. The trees are much loved as ornamentals, as well as for their fruits. The blossoms are fragrant and often depicted in Asian art.
The trees were introduced to Britain in the mid 19th century. Although not native to North America, these beautiful, 15 to 20-foot tall, deciduous Prunus mume trees can be successfully grown in USDA zones 6a-9b. They prefer fertile, acidic soil and full sun.
- If you are thinking that you might want to try growing Japanese Apricot, be sure to check out the link below for an interesting article by gardener Meghan Ray from Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
Ume Plum Products
In Japan, Ume plums are associated with the monsoon season, so much so that the rainy season is called 'tsuyu', meaning 'Ume rain'. In February and March the fragrant blossoms are the first to signal the coming of Spring. The fruits are generally ready for harvesting by the end of June.
Plums for pickled products and 'Umeshu' (a plum liqueur), are picked green to ensure the finest quality, acidity and flavor. For eating fresh and for jams, they are allowed to ripen further to a rosy, apricot color. During plum harvest time, public parks host plum festivals and the local stores are well stocked with supplies for canning Ume jams and for making Umeshu, a tradition in Japanese culture.
Umeboshi is made from plums soaked overnight in water and then layered with salt and pressed. The plums pickle and ferment until the end of July. By July, the Shiso is ready to harvest. The pickles steep in vinegar with Shiso; then the final product is aged. This cumbersome process is often left for food processing companies. Umeboshi products can be found in Asian markets and health food stores.
The plums are said to have healing powers and are often used in Macrobiotic cooking and folklore medicines. In Japanese society Umeboshi plums are usually eaten with rice or as part of a bento (a common boxed meal usually containing rice, protein and veggies). The sweet and sour pickled plums are often served in 'Onigiri' (rice balls). The pit usually remains inside the plum, so beware!
I can remember my friend Vicki making Onigiri for us when we would travel to the Pocono mountains on day ski trips. We would munch on them for a healthy, low fat, energy boost. Onigiri is easy to make and convenient to bring on trips as a snack. The rice (we used brown rice) is held together with Nori (seaweed) similar to sushi rolls, except that the round shape fits in the palm of your hand and is more the size of a tennis ball.
Ume paste is a convenient spread that can be used to season sushi, grain salads, pasta salads, steamed vegetables and salad dressings; or it can be used as a thin spread atop hors'dourves and snacks featuring fresh vegetables such as cucumber slices.
Umeboshi vinegar is actually a by-product of the umeboshi pickled plum production. The red colored vinegar tastes fruity and salty and works well when used sparingly as a condiment to season many types of foods. My favorite use for Ume vinegar is in Italian Basil Pesto, which is delicious when added to corn-on-the-cob, vegetables, salad dressings, fish and chicken dishes.
A little goes a long way
Umeboshi products are all high in salt, due to the nature of how umeboshi is made. For example, Eden Foods, Inc. makes their Kosher Umeboshi vinegar from Ume plums, sea salt and Shisho leaves. One teaspoon of Eden® Umeboshi Plum Vinegar contains 1050mg of sodium. At first glance that sounds like a staggering amount of sodium. Actually, Ume vinegar contains less than half the amount of sodium in table salt. (One teaspoon (6g) of table salt contains 2325mg of sodium!) As long as this ingredient is used in moderation, you will be assured delicious, healthy, low sodium cuisine with great flavor and taste.
Umeboshi vinegar lasts for a long time when stored in a cool, dry, dark pantry and does not have to be refrigerated.
Photos: Thumbnail photo: Unripe Ume Fruits by Sekiuchi, Wikipedia, GNU Free Documentation License. P. mume blossom photo Copyright ©2009 by DG member 'Growin'. Kkaennip Kimchi photo by Les, Wikimedia, GNU Free Documentation License. Green Umeboshi Plums, photo used with permission ©2009 Blue Lotus. Umeboshi Vinegar Copyright ©2009 'Wind'. All rights reserved.
- Japanese Flowering Apricot, by Meghan Ray, Brooklyn Botanic Garden
- Prunus mume, Japanese Apricot, Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture
- 梅酒 Umeshu recipe, Blue Lotus Blog-Tokyo, great photographs of Umeboshi Plums
- Ume Jam recipe, Blue Lotus Blog-Tokyo
- Umeboshi Japanese Plum information and popular plum tree locations in and around Tokyo