Japanese cuisine has a wonderful range of tastes and for many people umeboshi come top of the list. An apricot masquerading as a plum, it has been cultivated for centuries and is said to have amazing curative properties.
Umeboshi are a popular kind of tsukemono (pickles) and are extremely sour and salty. They are usually served as a side dishe for rice or eaten on rice balls for breakfast or lunch. Umeboshi (meaning “dried ume”) is often translated into English as “salt plums” or “pickled plums”. The ume is a species of fruit-bearing tree of the genus Prunus mume, often called a plum but actually more closely related to the apricot. Pickled ume which are not dried are called umezuke.
Umeboshi are usually round and vary from smooth to very wrinkled. Usually they taste salty, and are extremely sour due to high lactic acid content, but sweeter versions exist as well. The first written records of umeboshi appear as early as the year 200 CE. Initially it was ume-su (ume vinegar) that was prized: the sour-salty liquid by-product of the umeboshi-making process. The liquid was used as an antiseptic on wounds, as well as to clean metal items such as bronze mirrors and temple bells.
Western Honshu is the cultural heartland of Japan, although all the regions have their delights and attractions. The area around Wakayama is known throughout Japan for the quality of its ume and umeboshi. The small town of Minabe, in particular, produces more than any other town in Japan.
Umeboshi are traditionally made by harvesting ume fruit when they ripen around June and packing them in barrels with salt. A weight is placed on top and the fruit gradually exudes juices that accumulate at the bottom of the barrel.
Umeboshi are considered good for digestion, prevention of nausea, and for systemic toxicity, including hangovers. In Japan green ume extract is even used as a tonic. The citric acid acts as an antibacterial, helps to increase saliva production and assists in the digestion of rice.
For hundreds of years making enough umeboshi to last the rest of the year was an important task in many Japanese households. Grandmothers made a batch every summer, each taking enormous pride in giving them a slightly different taste. One might make pale, moist umeboshi more sour than salty, while another might make them so salty that the surface glistened with crystals.
Not far from Minabe, where umeboshi are cultivated, is Mount Koya, Japan’s most venerated Shingon-Buddhist site. Only 123 temples remain from the 1,000 that stood here during the Edo period. Kongobu-ji, built in 1592, is noted for its sliding-doors painted in the 16th century and its rhododendrons. The temple lodgings serve traditional vegetarian cuisine, including the famous umeboshi, perhaps the very soul of Japan.