In the popular Studio Ghibli animated film ‘Grave of the Fireflies’, the boy, Seita, forages in the rubble of a bombed city. He uncovers an undamaged supply cache, and retrieves several packages. One of these items is a large glass jar full of round, red morsels. On his way home, he opens the jar and tries one, making the most terrible face upon eating it. Why did he do that? Was there something wrong with the contents of the jar?
This scene leaves most people unfamiliar with Japanese food confused, but to most Japanese people, it is a hugely relatable scene, and contributes greatly to the emotional impact of the story. It pulls at childhood nostalgia, a feeling of ‘Japanese-ness’, and is also reminiscent of summertime in a way no other food item could possibly manage.
Umeboshi drying in the sun – © Wikipedia
The small red balls in the jar were a thing called ‘umeboshi’. This is often translated as ‘pickled plums’, but they’re not like any pickle you’ve had before. Umeboshi are made by preserving ripe Japanese ume plums (which actually sort of look more like apricots) in tons of salt and then leaving them out to dry for a while. The end result is, in its purest form, a preserved fruit with an intense salty-sour flavour that packs even more of a punch than sherbet. It’s easy to understand why a child eating it would make a face!
Umeboshi are super popular in Japan. They can be eaten on their own (watch out for the seed), or used to add flavour to all sorts of things, such as rice, chicken, and even green tea. And you can bet that Japanese people have not failed to notice that putting a single umeboshi in the middle of a bed of white rice looks like a Japanese flag.
One umeboshi on a bed of rice makes an easy and iconic bento – © Wikipedia
These days, umeboshi come in dozens of different flavours. While at the most basic the ingredients are just salt and plums, they’re also often flavoured with the red leaves of a herb called ‘shiso’, which has a very intense flavour and stains the ume fruits a deep, vibrant red. There are also all sorts of flavours for people who can’t quite take that much sour. Honeyed umeboshi are probably the most popular of the sweetened varieties (honey makes them salty, sour, and sweet all at the same time), but more unusual examples even include flavours such as mango umeboshi. Also, since the preserving process is mostly salt, these days there are even low-salt varieties (3% counts as low-salt), although since salt is supposed to be the preserving agent, these low-salt varieties probably rely on different methods of preserving the umeboshi.
The process of making umeboshi also creates a sort of juice, called ‘ume-zu’ (‘plum vinegar’, although technically not a vinegar). The ume-zu is kept, and used to store the umeboshi, to keep them juicy and soft. But once the umeboshi are eaten, it also becomes a tasty, umeboshi-flavoured drink. Although the name sounds a bit like ‘umeshu’, which is Japanese plum wine, they’re not the same thing at all, so don’t get them confused!
Umeboshi ready to eat! – © tk1
As hinted earlier, umeboshi are best eaten in summer. Traditionally, they’re made in June, when the ume plums ripen – that’s early summer in Japan. And the salty-sour flavour of umeboshi is just perfect for hot summer days. The intense hit of sour leaves you feeling super refreshed, and the high salt content helps restore the salt your body loses on those long, hot, sticky and sweaty summer days.
Umeboshi have all sorts of other health benefits, too. For instance, they’re amazing for your digestive system. As well as helping regulate tummy upsets and all sorts of other digestive problems, they can also help stimulate your digestion and appetite. Traditionally, they’ve also been used as a kind of medicinal cure-all – for instance, many people also consider them a hangover remedy, and they’re even said to be effective at purifying water!
Ripe ume plums still on the tree – © coloredby
The best umeboshi are said to come from Wakayama Prefecture, which is close to Osaka. Before Wakayama existed, this region was home to a domain known as ‘Kishū’, and umeboshi from this region are often called ‘kishū-ume’. Umeboshi are an acquired taste, and recipe variations can produce hugely different results, so if you’re going to try umeboshi, you should probably start with kishū-ume. You can’t know if you like umeboshi or not until you’ve tried the best!