As a regular part of the Japanese diet, the fermented plums known as umeboshi are often one of the components of a bento box meal. However, while many in the United States are probably only familiar with one variety of umeboshi, there are actually several types of the complex Japanese fruit you can add to your meal or enjoy as a snack.
What is Umeboshi
The ume tree is the first tree to blossom in the spring in Japan, marking the beginning of spring and bringing cause for celebration in the form of Ume Matsuri, a traditional spring festival. The ume fruit has many culinary uses, but the most common way is to make umeboshi — pickled ume fruit.
Traditional umeboshi are first salted, fermented, and dried. But even after all these fermenting and drying processes, the plums are still quite meaty and juicy when you bite into them. They exhibit a robust and salty-sweet-sour taste that may take a little getting used to for the uninitiated. But once you start enjoying umeboshi with complete bento box meals or even just with a bowl of rice, you won’t be able to deny the allure and the addiction to this unique and intensely flavorful fruit.
Ume was first introduced to Japan from China in 700 A.D., during Japan’s Asuka period. It was first used as a form of traditional medicine and is still revered today for its many health benefits.
Different Kinds of Umeboshi
After trying traditional umeboshi, you’ll also want to experience the different kinds of flavors. Which one will you enjoy the most?
Considered the most traditional type of umeboshi, the plums are pickled only with salt. This produces a highly salty and sour version of umeboshi (the salt content is about 20%). Additionally, if you preserve it without any contamination, you can eat them even after many years.
Karikari Ume (Crispy)
You find it often in a bento box, these umeboshi plums are small, bright red, and exhibit a crispy texture, rather than soft. This is because these umeboshi are not dried while being made, resulting in a harder, crispier fruit. And while they use young green plums to make karikari ume, shiso adds bright red colors to them during the process.
Traditional umeboshi can also be seasoned with red shiso leaf, which doesn’t affect the color. Instead, it adds antiseptic and sterilization qualities, further preserving the umeboshi and intensifying the fruit’s flavor and aroma.
In Japan, one of the most popular types of shiso ume is Fukami’s Organic Umeboshi. This premium umeboshi features ripe organic Nanko plums, the highest regarded variety, harvested by the Fukami family. Along with Wakayama-sourced organic red shiso and a long, careful, and traditional curing process that has been in the family for generations, Fukami produces a superb plums to be enjoyed with many different foods or just as a healthy snack.
If the strong, sour flavor of traditional ume is too much for you, you might prefer kombu ume. Pickled with kombu kelp, the seaweed mellows the tart flavor of the umeboshi, making it more tolerable and less intense for those who don’t want such a sour bite.
Seasoning the umeboshi with katsuobushi and shiso leaves results in a fantastic, umami-rich combination of flavors. Not too sour or salty, bonito ume can accompany many dishes without being too overpowering. Instead, it complements and enhances the food.
If you like your umeboshi sweet, then this is the one for you. Made with pure honey, these plums exhibit a much sweeter flavor, with undertones of sour and saltiness for an intriguing taste.
How to Eat Umeboshi
While many enjoy umeboshi simply as a healthy, flavorful snack, you can add them to several dishes and meals as well. Try it with a bowl of rice or udon noodles, in porridge, or along with the tofu. You can also use it as a garnish for several American dishes, such as pasta, pizza, or salads. Wrap an umeboshi inside of onigiri, and you’ll have a truly umami-rich snack! And if you’re feeling adventurous and creative, you can even use umeboshi to make unique cocktails with sake or shochu!