Ume Season is Here (Japanese Plums)

During a few fleeting weeks from June to July each year, ume fruit, or Japanese plums (actually closer to an apricot), come into season. Ume make their debut in supermarkets bright green and firm, not yet ready to use in most recipes other than for steeping in liquor to make umeshu (plum wine). Within just a few weeks, a second wave of more mature fruit, sun-kissed and yellow-like pretty apricots appears in markets. Don’t be tempted by their golden ripe glow. If you bite directly into one, brace yourself for mouth-puckering tartness. For this reason, ume are hardly ever eaten raw. But, preserved in salt or alcohol, they develop an irresistible tanginess and complexity.
Green Ume – Photo by Simone Chen
Semi-ripe Ume at the Market – Photo by Simone Chen
While ume is much loved as a zingy, flavorful food, its blossoms have been adored since ancient times. Ume flowers are celebrated for their beauty as much as for their punctuality. They bloom immediately upon winter’s thawing out, indicating the arrival of spring. Throughout history, literati waxed poetic about them, inspired by the flowers’ symbolism representing change and new beginnings.

Cooking with Ume

Recently I took a cooking class where I tried my hand at making various dishes with ume. While finely chopping garlic and julienning herbaceous shiso (perilla) leaves, my classmates and I got to know each other. By the time we sat down to eat the fruits of our labor, I'd learned that ume is one of those nostalgic foods, shared by all Japanese, that brings back memories of childhood summers. Below are some of the most popular ways to enjoy ume, not only during the summer season but at any time of the year.
Cooking with Ume Class – Photo by Simone Chen

Umeboshi

The Japanese certainly have a way with pickles (called tsukemono). Complex, tart, salty, and at times odiferous, pickles are near and dear to the Japanese heart -- and stomach. Originally, seasonal produce was preserved for the same reason all foods are preserved, to store and enjoy them past their season. Today, no Japanese meal is complete without some form of pickles. Umeboshi, sometimes referred to as pickled ume (or dried ume), are no different.
Tangy, Salty Umeboshi – Photo by Simone Chen
Intensely salty and sour, umeboshi have been known to induce eyes to water and mouths to pucker upon biting into one. For many non-Japanese, umeboshi are an acquired taste. But ask any Japanese about these small puckered flavor bombs, and expect to hear an emphatic yummy or “Oishii!” This exclamation is almost always followed by fondly recounting childhood memories of helping mom or grandma clean a batch of green plums and packing them in salt. Or of being fed a bowl of rice porridge topped with an umeboshi to banish a stomach ache.
Umeboshi Okayu (Rice Porridge) – Photo from Flickr cc by Dawn Loh
Many families still make homemade batches of umeboshi every June. While pre-packaged versions of the pickles are readily available at almost all supermarkets, nothing beats the homemade kind, pure and simple without any added preservatives or flavors. Making umeboshi is simple and fun, but takes time: a year or more to allow for proper fermentation to carry its course. But the reward is well worth the investment and can be enjoyed all through the year.
Umeboshi at the Supermarket – Photo by Simone Chen
Many great recipes for homemade umeboshi are available online and in cookbooks. Be prepared to have on hand a batch of semi-ripe ume, sea salt, a pickling crock, and a large dose of patience. Most recipes also call for the addition of red shiso leaves to give the pickles their characteristic pink-red hue. Beyond fermenting, the process calls for a few days of drying the ume out under the sun. The plums are then stored in glass jars to mature for a year or more to develop their complex flavor.
Umeboshi Drying Under the Sun – Photo from Flickr cc by Tamaki Sono
Add a couple chopped up umeboshi (discard the pit) to any dish to give new life to everyday flavors. Spoon a heap of soft, tangy flesh into stewed meat dishes and soups, or whisk into a salad dressing or pasta sauce for a tangy kick. Their tartness works wonders to enliven chicken and duck dishes. Or add to grilled fish to brighten umami flavors. A little goes a long way.
Pasta Salad with Umeboshi Sauce – Photo by Simone Chen
Even on its own, umeboshi is a potent palate cleanser -- and a tried and true hangover cure! -- perfect as an accompaniment to greasy foods. For imbibers, try adding a whole one to your next martini as it’ll blow olives out of the water!
Umeboshi Cocktail – Photo from Flickr cc by InterContinental Hong Kong

Umeshu

Umeshu is a Japanese liquor made by steeping unripe ume in shochu and rock sugar. Like umeboshi, making umeshu takes time for proper maturing, but is well worth the wait. During the many months of maturation, try one of the many tasty and affordable umeshu available from liquor stores, supermarkets, and convenience stores in Japan. Try umeshu poured over ice, diluted with soda water, or mixed into cocktails.
Steeping Ume to Make Umeshu – Photo from Flickr cc by Julia Frost
Both the fruit and liquor in umeshu can be used to cook with, and unlike umeboshi’s sour and saltiness, are incredibly sweet and earthy. Toss in a few umeshu fruits to braise with chicken and soy sauce to add a deep fruity sweetness to an otherwise one-dimensional dish.
Braised Chicken with Umeshu and Ume – Photo by Simone Chen
Ume fruit are available in almost all markets in Japan starting at the end of May. Outside of Japan, check your local Asian foods market or specialty fruit producers online. In Japan, some of the best quality ume hail from Wakayama Prefecture, where the climate lends to producing juicy meaty fruit with small pits.
In the kitchen, don't just stop with umeboshi and umeshu. Ume are incredibly versatile to cook with, so make them your own. Ume jam and preserves, syrups and vinegars are just some of the other ways to enliven your everyday cooking.
Simone is Odigo's super foodie. Check out her profile for great food spots all across Japan!

Simone Chen