Umeboshi, or Japanese pickled plums, are the jewels in the crown of Japan’s pickling tradition. They have been consumed for over a thousand years, first as a medicine, thought to prevent fatigue, purify water, and purge toxins, and later as a flavorful condiment. Mitoku’s umeboshi are made following an ancient, all-natural process, refined over centuries in the village of Ryujin in Wakayama prefecture. Organically grown Japanese plums are combined with sea salt to undergo lactic-acid fermentation, one of the oldest and safest methods of food preservation. They are then soaked with zesty shiso leaf to impart color, flavor, and aroma, as well as the antibacterial and preservative qualities traditionally associated with the herb. The resulting umeboshi have all the eye-opening tang and tartness you might expect, but are balanced with a mellowness derived from the slow and careful production process.
Although there are several natural producers of pickled plums in Japan, few use the year-long traditional process of Mitoku’s supplier and fewer still use organically grown plums and high-quality sea salt. In fact, the umeboshi found in many food stores are made in just a few weeks using red dye, organic acids, and commercial salt. To be sure that you are buying the finest-quality pickled plums, check the ingredients on the label. Pick the pickled plums made with organic plums, organic shiso leaves, and sea salt.
Mitoku’s traditional umeboshi are made from plums which are picked in Wakayama’s hillsides. They are then pickled, sun-dried, infused with shiso leaf, and aged. Our producer follows the time-honored methods of Ryujin village to create mellow and delicious pickled plums that contain less salt than standard umeboshi.
These pretty pink pickles are commonly served as a condiment with rice, or tucked inside a nori-wrapped rice ball. Umeboshi can be used to flavor sauces and dressings, added to tea, or even enjoyed without accompaniment. Umeboshi also go well with cabbage family vegetables, such as kale, and in sautéed dishes.
Organic Umeboshi Paste
Umeboshi paste is a ready-to-use product made from organic umeboshi that have been pitted, mashed, and tubed. This handy and versatile paste can be substituted for umeboshi in almost any recipe. Umeboshi paste adds a pleasing tartness to salad dressings, cooked vegetables, and sauces.
Organic Umeboshi Vinegar
Ume vinegar is a delicious byproduct of the umeboshi production process, made from the brine in which the umeboshi are steeped. This brine is infused with shiso, a herb with a unique flavor that combines citrusy, zesty, and spicy notes. The leaves work to add color and flavor to umeboshi and its brine, and are also thought to impart antibacterial and preservatives qualities to the pickling process.Ume vinegar is a versatile seasoning that is pleasantly tart and salty, and can liven up salad dressings, tofu spreads, and quick home pickles. It also works well tossed with tender greens or steamed vegetables.
Almost 200 years ago, the Japanese began experimenting with ways to concentrate the healing powers of umeboshi. Finally, a dark liquid called bainiku ekisu (plum extract) was developed. To make the extract, sour green ume plums are slowly cooked down to obtain their most active ingredients in a highly concentrated form.The resulting dark, sticky, thick liquid is usually mixed with hot water and honey and is drunk as a tonic. Dried plum extract is also formed into pills, called meitan. In both plum extract and meitan, the plums’ citric acid content is concentrated tenfold, which is equivalent to about twenty-five times the content found in lemon juice.
Many natural healers around the world feel that these concentrated forms of Japanese plums are among the world’s most effective natural remedies. Moreover, they do not have the high salt content of pickled plums.
Ume Shiso Sprinkle
Shiso momiji is a traditional Japanese condiment that is a delicious and healthful alternative to table salt. It imparts a zesty, salty-tart flavor that is especially appealing sprinkled on grains, tofu dishes, and salads. Made from iron-rich shiso (perilla herb) leaves,this condiment is made with fresh shiso leaves that are first pickled with umeboshi then sun-dried and powdered. Shiso condiment helps the body to maintain an alkaline condition.
The center of Japan’s pickled plum industry is in Wakayama Prefecture, on Japan’s main island of Honshu. Even before the first orchards were planted, Wakayama’s hillsides were abundant in wild plum (ume) trees. The area’s mild temperatures, year-round plentiful rain, and sheltered geographic situation serve to bring forth the finest and most plentiful fruit in the country. Mitoku Ryujin Umeboshi is also produced in the Ryujin village, the heart of Japan’s pickled-plum region.
Using their own variation of the traditional methods used in Ryujin for centuries, the producer for Mitoku Ryujin Umeboshi makes a mellow, tasty pickled plum that has less salt than typical Japanese pickled plums. The process used by them is technically known as “lactic-acid fermentation,” one of the oldest and safest ways of preserving food. The secret to making good pickled plums is getting lactic-acid-forming bacteria (the desirable type) to grow before other competing bacteria have a chance to multiply. While lactic-acid bacteria are salt-tolerant, many undesirable species are not. To help establish beneficial bacteria, traditional makers use the proper amount of salt, and store the fermenting plums in a cool, dark place. Lactic-acid bacteria multiply rapidly under these conditions. Once flourishing, they produce enough lactic acid and carbon dioxide to create an acidic environment that further inhibits the growth of undesirable microorganisms and enzymes. The carbon dioxide also contributes to a favorable anaerobic (low oxygen) condition and further stimulates the growth of lactic-acid bacteria.
At Ryujin, plums are picked around the end of June, when they are still green and their juice is at its peak of acidity. This guarantees the umeboshi to have as tart a taste as possible. According to them, if the fruit is picked too early, they are too hard, and their color never changes from green, but if left too long on the branch, the resulting pickles will be soft, mushy, and tasteless.
By the last week in June, all the plums reach their full size at the same time and must be picked within a week or two. Any delay means the plums will begin to ripen, reducing their acidity, flavor, and medicinal qualities.
Next, the harvested plums are washed and then soaked overnight in water to remove any bitterness. The following day, the soaked plums are placed in large vats. A layer of jade green plums is topped with glistening white sea salt, followed by another layer, then another until each vat is filled with 5,500 pounds of plums and 638 pounds of salt. This brings the salt content to about 12 percent.
The salt immediately begins to draw out the juice from the plums. A flat pressing lid topped with a heavy weight is placed on the plums to keep them submerged in the liquid. As the salt penetrates the flesh of the fruit, the pickling process begins; the plums are left to ferment until the end of July (the end of the rainy season). Taken from the vats, the pickled plums are placed on wooden racks and left outside to dry for anywhere from four to seven days, depending on the weather.
Although the pickling process is now complete, the wrinkled and shriveled plums do not have the dramatic red color and aromatic flavor of Mitoku’s prized Ryujin organic pickled plums. To make these finest umeboshi, the plums are soaked in plum vinegar along with leaves of the beautiful, scented red shiso (perilla) plant. An herb that is related to mint, shiso has a slight lemony taste yet a unique flavor of its own. Beside adding color and flavor to umeboshi, shiso has been said to have strong antibacterial and preservative qualities.
To add the essence of shiso leaves to the pickled plums, the leaves are mixed with the liquid (brine) that is left from the pickling process. The shiso leaves turn the liquid a brilliant red, and the umeboshi are left to steep in this liquid for five days. When the plums are removed from the plum vinegar, they are placed in vats and left to age for up to one year. The remaining red liquid becomes Umeboshi Vinegar.
Umeboshi and umeboshi paste are lively and versatile seasonings that add a pleasant tartness to salad dressings, cooked vegetables, and sauces. Umeboshi is also commonly served in Japan as a condiment with rice, or tucked inside a rice ball wrapped with nori. In the summer, thick cucumber rounds spread thinly with umeboshi paste are a cooling treat. Sparingly spread on cooked sweet corn, it is a delicious, healthful alternative to butter and salt. Umeboshi also goes well with members of the cabbage family, including broccoli, kale, and cauliflower.
When using whole pickled plums, it is usually necessary to remove the pit and mince the flesh before adding it to recipes. Mitoku Umeboshi Paste can be substituted for umeboshi in virtually any recipe.
The shiso leaves that are often packaged with umeboshi are also delicious when chopped and used as a seasoning inside nori rolls or when tossed in with steamed or sautéed vegetables.
Umeboshi vinegar, or ume-su, contains nutrients associated with pickled plums, and it is easy and convenient to use. Both pleasantly tart and salty, umeboshi vinegar is a versatile seasoning that is especially refreshing on hot afternoons. Use umeboshi vinegar to liven up salad dressings, homemade quick pickles, and tofu spreads. It adds a pleasantly pungent flavor to cooked leafy greens (especially cabbage), cauliflower, broccoli, and green beans. Steam, boil, or sauté vegetables until tender but still vivid in color. Drain if necessary, place in a serving bowl, and toss with umeboshi vinegar to taste. When substituting umeboshi vinegar for other types of vinegar, substantially reduce the amount used, or eliminate the salt in the recipe. The following recipes will help you become familiar with umeboshi and umeboshi vinegar and will soon have you discovering new ways to use these delicious and healthful seasonings.