THE EVERLASTING PLUM

Pucker up for this incredibly powerful little pickle that has played a role in colds, hangovers and wars.

Bentobox, Magazine, Japanese, Toronto, food, cultureLong known as the sick man’s lifeline and the poor man’s staple, the umeboshi is embedded in Japanese history and often takes centre stage in the country’s cuisine. Although it is often called “sour plum” in English, the ume is actually a closer relative to the apricot than the plum—so “pickled apricot” might be a better description.

Dried and pickled in salt, the umeboshi has an intensely sour and salty flavour. It actually contains double the citric acid of a lemon, so if you pop one in your mouth, it’s nearly impossible to keep from sucking in your cheeks and squeezing your eyes shut. Because of its powerful flavour, a single umeboshi is a perfectly sufficient accessory for a bowl of plain rice. A simple lunch of white rice with an umeboshi in the middle is called a “Hinomaru bento” and evokes national pride because of its striking resemblance to the Japanese flag (known as Hinomaru).

Umeboshi are cherished for their multitude of health benefits, and their natural resistance to spoiling made them especially valued in times of war. Warlords ordered the planting of ume groves so that soldiers could carry umeboshi in bundles and eat them to keep their energy levels up and their digestive systems healthy. Even today, umeboshi are regarded as a cure for hangovers and colds, and it’s a common belief that “an umeboshi a day keeps the doctor away.”

Bentobox, Magazine, Japanese, Toronto, food, cultureWakayama Prefecture in the southern part of Japan is the most prolific producer of umeboshi and is where the traditional method of pickling the ume with red shiso (perilla leaves) originated. While this is considered to be the representative umeboshi, many different types have been popping up in grocery stores recently, such as umeboshi marinated in honey for a sweeter taste, and low-sodium umeboshi with a fruitier flavour. Umeboshi made the traditional way have such incredible preservative strength that they practically never go bad—and it is even considered a bad omen if you come across a rotten one. (The lower-sodium umeboshi tend not to have as long of a shelf life, though, so don’t fret if you find them spoiled.) The traditional umeboshi may be an acquired taste, but you’re bound to find one that suits your palate with the large variety you can choose from at an Asian market.

The blossoming of the ume tree is a symbol in Japanese poetry for the beginning of spring. You can find dried or crunchy ume, both of which are consumed as snacks. Is this article making you salivate? People familiar with the taste of umeboshi tend to get a mouthful of saliva just by looking at or thinking about them—a helpful hint for when your mouth is dry. The oldest existing umeboshi is from 1576—and it’s still edible. Umeshu is a popular alcoholic drink made from steeping unripe ume in alcohol and sugar. It has a sweet and slightly sour taste. Umeboshi are great accents to savoury dishes. Try marinating your chicken with them or tossing some in your pasta sauce to add a Japanese flair to your dish. They’re even great as a garnish for your cocktail. Originally from China, these little pickles have become an essential part of Japanese cuisine. Some of their health benefits include preventing nausea, stimulating digestion, preventing fatigue, promoting dental health and detoxifying the body. They are regarded to be so effective that on a sick day, the Japanese version of chicken noodle soup is rice porridge with umeboshi. So next time you’re hovering over your toilet thanks to food poisoning or a hangover, try sucking on one of these little guys. But be careful not to bite into them too hard—they have large pits!

Bentobox, Magazine, Japanese, Toronto, food, culture

In a pickle

The blossoming of the ume tree is a symbol in Japanese poetry for the beginning of spring. Originally from China, these little pickles have become an essential part of Japanese cuisine.

  • You can find dried or crunchy ume, both of which are consumed as snacks.

  • Is this article making you salivate? People familiar with the taste of umeboshi tend to get a mouthful of saliva just by looking at or thinking about them—a helpful hint for when your mouth is dry.

  • The oldest existing umeboshi is from 1576—and it’s still edible.

  • Umeshu is a popular alcoholic drink made from steeping unripe ume in alcohol and sugar. It has a sweet and slightly sour taste.

  • Umeboshi are great accents to savoury dishes. Try marinating your chicken with them or tossing some in your pasta sauce to add a Japanese flair to your dish. They’re even great as a garnish for your cocktail.