Ume (Japanese Plum)
Enchanting the Senses, Inspiring the Heart
In the midst of the cold Japanese winter, a promise of spring appears—the Japanese plum blossom. The delicate, small flowers stand out against the stark branches in varying colors from white to red, and release their unmistakable fragrance into the icy air. The fruit of this tree is often translated as plum, but is biologically of the apricot family. To avoid any confusion, we will simply refer to the fruit, as well as the tree that bears it, as Japanese plum, or ume. The tree, blossoms and fruit have long been represented in art, poetry and song, and have a powerful seasonal significance to the Japanese people. The underripe fruit is used to make umeshu (plum wine), similar to a cordial or a liqueur, and umeboshi (literally dried plum, but commonly known as pickled plum), delicious as an accom- paniment to hot rice, or as fillings for rice balls. Both have also traditionally been used in home health remedies. Many people have fond memories of their grandmothers, aunts and mothers preparing umeboshi or umeshu! Traditional folklore about ume includes the belief that eating an umeboshi before leaving the house in the morning helps to ward off misfortune, and planting a Japanese plum tree in the northeast corner of your property (called the "demon's gate," as it was from this direction evil was believed to enter) could ward off calamity.
From Where, Ume?
The specific type of ume known in Japan is native to Eastern Asia and is said to have its origins in China. There was a theory that there was a separate strain in ancient Japan which developed into "Japanese plum," but there is no proof to support it. It's said that ume was originally introduced from China prior to the Nara period (710—794) as medicine made from the fruit for gastrointestinal ailments and to help rid the body of toxins. We can see in the oldest collection of Japanese poetry, the Manyoshu, which was compiled from the latter half of the 7th century through the end of the 8th century, that there are 118 poems with ume as their subject—nearly three times more than the 42 poems about the cherry blossoms. At that point in history, the word hanami referred to going not to view the blossoms of the cherry, but the ume! In the Heian period, the ume blossom, more popular than the cherry, was a popular motif on the coats of arms belonging to the nobility whose gardens often featured Japanese plum trees, planted so their owners could appreciate their grace and beauty. The image of ume, held dear by men and women of all ages, appeared on paintings, clothing, ceramics, lacquerware, etc., and continues today to be a popular and beloved image throughout Japanese culture. The tiny, fragile flowers that bloomed even when snow and ice still clung to the branches provided a feeling of hope and better times to come. They seemed to say, "Just hold on for a little longer—soon spring will be here!" When the Japanese, many of whom believe that endurance is a highly prized character trait, saw the trees blooming in such a harsh environment, they felt a strong emotional connection with ume. Perhaps they saw the blossoms as a metaphor for overcoming adversity in life while presenting a countenance that could encourage and cheer others.
Pucker Up! The Origin of Umeboshi
The extreme tartness of the raw ume made it impossible to consume au naturel like peaches or pears, so it was thought ume would be best as a preserved, or pickled, food. Thus was born the prototype for the traditional method which is still in use today for making umeboshi: the partially matured, but still green, fruit is harvested about June, and, heavily mixed with salt, placed in a container with a weight on top. The salt immediately starts to draw the liquid out of the ume, and the weight keeps the fruit submerged in the liquid. After the ume ferment in the liquid for a few weeks, they are then removed and left to dry in the sun. The final product offers a delicious mouth puckering salty-sourness that has no peer!
During the Kamakura period (1185—1333) and following Muromachi period (1337—1573), umeboshi [were enjoyed only by] Buddhist monks and members of the new ruling military elite. Umeboshi was an important field ration during the Warring States period of the Muromachi era—they didn't go rancid quickly, and it was thought that they warded off infectious disease, disinfected food and water (due to the umeboshi's high acidity), helped to overcome fatigue and stimulated saliva production, aiding in digestion and helping to quench thirst. Soldiers were sent into battle with a supply of umeboshi, and they kept them in pockets close to their chest.
Umeboshi consumption spread to the general population in the early 17th century, after the start of the Edo period. First the pickled fruits were seen in the stalls of soba and udon street vendors who used them as condiments, then they gradually became a popular addition to the family dining table. Production increased, and many regions became known for their own unique umeboshi. As they become a standard household item, many families began producing homemade versions. To a lot of people in Japan, making umeboshi at home represents the early summer season as clearly as any photograph or reminiscence—it's an activity rich in nostalgia, and this is perhaps why there are still a number of people who continue to make their own.
Raise a Glass to Umeshu!
Umeshu is an extremely popular alcoholic beverage unique to Japan. Since olden times, umeshu was known as a healthful liqueur with a distinctive, fresh aroma and clean, sweet-tart taste. n a document published during the mid-Edo period in 1697, the oldest extant record mentioning umeshu, it is written, "[This is] unripened ume steeped in aged liquor and sugar," and "Umeshu is a healthful tonic that breaks down internal toxins, relieves throat pain, suppresses inflammation and promotes appetite." From this, we can surmise that umeshu was being produced, but the details aren't clear.
Also, in those days sugar was a highly precious commodity that wasn't available to the general public, so it's unlikely that typical households were engaged in making umeshu. Nowadays, even though many types of umeshu are available in the stores, with varying levels of sweetness, quite a few people enjoy making it at home. During a small window of time in the early summer, Japanese plums, ripened only to a certain degree, rock sugar and any distilled white alcohol such as shochu or vodka are all combined in a large glass container and left to sit for at least 3 months. Letting it sit for about one year, though, allows the flavor to mature and develop a wonderful depth and complexity. Umeshu has a rather high alcohol percentage, ranging from about 10% to 15%, and may be enjoyed straight, on the rocks, mixed with hot water or club soda, or as a mixer for cocktails. Umeshu is equally effective as an appetite inducing aperitif or meal-ending digestif to aid digestion and it also goes surprisingly well with certain foods. The gentle fruity aroma and sweet-tart taste makes it a soothing drink, even for people who don't usually enjoy alcohol.
Beneficial Effects of Ume
1) Fights Fatigue!
It's said that one of the reasons for fatigue is a deficiency of citric acid which is what helps convert food into energy. Umeboshi are rich in citric acid, and thus are said to play a role in boosting our energy levels and helping us fight as well as recover from fatigue.
2) Purifies Blood!
When our bodies are low in citric acid, our metabolism doesn't work as it should, and we develop a build-up of lactic acid which can lead not only to fatigue, but also stiff, achy shoulders and lower back pain, among other uncomfortable conditions. The citric acid burns the lactic acid, converting it to energy, helping to cleanse the blood. Ume also contain picric acid which enhances liver function, and also aids in cleansing the blood.
3) Helps Against Aging!
It's commonly believed that aging and blood vessels are related—there is even a common saying in Japanese: "Aging begins in the blood vessels." In order to guard against unhealthy aging and wear and tear of blood vessels, it is important to prevent a build-up of damage due to peroxidation of lipids which leads to cell damage. The citric acid in ume products is said to not only remove the degraded lipids, but to also play a role in strengthening the blood vessels themselves.
Deeply rooted in history, ume continues to be a significant part of the Japanese food culture and lifestyle. That irresistible salty-sour taste blends well with and enhances a startlingly wide variety of foods and beverages including juices, jams, salad dressings, confections and candies! Umeboshi, big, soft, meaty ones and small, firm, crunchy ones, come in old fashioned mouth-puckering flavors and sweeter honey infused versions (good for children and those folks new to umeboshi). And don't forget delicious umeshu—homemade plum wine might just be a fun "to-do" family project this summer!