UME.….WHAT? This is a photo of my grandmother making umeboshi. What is umeboshi you might ask? Ume is the Japanese word for plum. So umeboshi are pickled plums. I’m almost certain that the history of umeboshi goes back before the Tokugawa Dynasty in Japan. The umeboshi have been added as a filler into rice balls (onigiri) and I know that onigiri were popular way back in history because it was a food that was super mobile.
The women would pack the rice balls and put surprises like umeboshi, tuna, fish flakes and whatever else that could be packed into a rice ball. The umeboshi was definitely a surprise element. It also shows the careful consideration that women put into making a food item for someone. I can imagine the Samurai fighting for days or months. Taking a rice ball with an umeboshi was probably considered a treat after fighting and seeing death. Being that they are sour, they may have been used to even “wake up” people or to jolt them out of whatever stupor they were in. The bitter and sour taste to this food item definitely “wakes up” the mouth. I can’t explain the flavor, you have to taste it and then you will understand. It’s a love or hate relationship. These particular plums that my grandmother has picked are not edible off of the tree. However, if you dry them out as she has done in the photo above, and pickle them, they turn into umeboshi.
So Japanese eat a lot of pickled items such as pickled cucumbers, daikon (which is a radish) pickled chrysanthemum’s, kimchee (which is a Korean dish of pickled cabbage with spices), and many other items. I think that the Japanese have a lot of pickled items due to their climate. In the summer time, the weather gets very humid and muggy. In order to preserver foods for a longer period of time, pickling makes sense. You can also store them longer and stock them in times of need. My grandmother experienced WWII and I’m sure that her family survived off of many pickled items. She has lived in the countryside her whole life and knows how to do various things with vegetables around her garden. To us, the pickling process may seem tedious and time consuming, but for my grandmother it is a way of life. This to her seems as normal as us going to the grocery store to pick up vegetables for a salad.
There is a whole process of drying them out which takes several days. My grandmother put sea salt on top of them and also used some kind of alcohol (possibly rice wine). She uses red shiso leaves to help bring red color to the umeboshi.
So the Japanese family likes to commonly sit together at dinner (that may be changing). It’s a very communal type of thing in which you have to have proper manners about serving each other and making sure that you turn your chopsticks upside down. Why? You reverse your chopsticks because there are no germs on that side. Japan has a very considerate and sensitive culture. People do watch your moves and etiquette. A lot of times you will see last nights leftover and the eating situation becomes a”free for all”. It even comes down to a duel of chopsticks fighting for the last umeboshi. A meal typically consists of rice, some kind of pickled dish (umeboshi or takuwan (pickled daikon that is dyed yellow)) a vegetable of some sort and fish in many cases. Meat like beef or pork is not something that you see daily for a meal. Meat is pretty expensive in Japan, but the quality is top notch. The umeboshi does make its appearance many times at breakfast, lunch or dinner.
The umeboshi has a very distinct and unique flavor. Personally, I do not like the taste. It is super sour and very tangy. Depending on the strength, you can spot a few pucker faces upon the person eating it if the fermentation process made it super sour. Japanese feel that it is a healthy thing to eat which is why you typically see it a lot. Umami, or the 5th distinctive flavor that Japanese pride themselves, with is definitely a component of the umeboshi. Umami is supposed to characterize a sweet, sour, salty and bitter taste. NPR has an interesting piece about Umami in case you are interested. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15819485
If you are adventurous, give the umeboshi a try. The Japanese will dare you to eat it and it will appear if you do a homestay or go to someone’s house for dinner. Make sure you are polite about eating it. Try it and if it is not to your liking, do not make a big deal about it. Just casually take it out of your mouth and say that it has a unique flavor. Be nice about it. I’m sure the Japanese will chuckle about it. If you eat it, your street cred will go way up with the Japanese! Happy Puckering!