Clockwise from top left: Honey umeboshi from Tokyo, my homemade umeboshi ready to age, Small umeboshi from Kyoto
In early 2013, I picked up a dozen umeboshi for a princely sum to make a batch of pickled cherry blossoms. As i sat in my seat on my flight to Japan, I earmarked umeboshi to bring home. The salted plums are pretty amazing little bombs of flavor. At Nishiki Market in Kyoto, I was on the lookout for umeboshi to bring back to Tokyo then Chicago. We arrived at the tail end of ume season, so as I chowed on takoyaki, my partner saw a vendor who was still selling green ume.
When I arrived, I presumed umeboshi were pickled plums. This is how the pickles are described in nearly every piece of literature I read about umeboshi asserts this. Ume are closer to apricots than plums. In fact, it is likely neither as we know them, but rather something different altogether. Their texture is far closer to apricot and somehow I ended up with some ume (about a half kilo) upon my return to home.
The problem with internet recipe sleuthing is there are a multitude of recipes, they are all different and you know do not know which are good. When it comes to obscure recipes, and umeboshi may be one of the most obscure, it gets worse. My thoughts were to find something exceedingly simple and let it roll. Luckily, the first part of making umeboshi appears to be consistent across most of the recipes. Soak the ume overnight in cold water to leech out bitterness. Then gently dry the ume and pour shochu over them to “kill surface mold spores”.
This is where things got variable. Salt ratios varied from 10 to 25%, so I went with 15% as a SWAG (translation: I added 15% of the weight of the ume in salt as scientific wild-ass guess). I added a ten pound weight to press the ume and left them to sit for a month. In this month, I reached out to Yukari Sakamoto, my friend and great author of Food Sake Tokyo, and she gave great pointers. I then found Robbie Swinnerton’s great umeboshi docudrama. This visual step by step was especially helpful in the last few steps.
Next, I grabbed red shiso leaves from our garden, added salt and squeezed and squeezed until the dark purple juice was released. After the first liquid was released, I added the juice released from the ume to the red shiso leaves. This is where the deep redness comes from.
The ume are added back to the juice and left to sit for another 2 weeks. When the two weeks are up, I dried the ume in the sun for three days and reserved the umezu (the umeboshi vinegar). After drying the umeboshi and umezu have a year of fridge-bound aging. I had no idea about the aging until I was moments away from eating one of the umeboshi. It is lucky that I happened to have some umeboshi from the trip to Japan to satisfy my umeboshi urges while I wait.
When the aging period is up, I will report back with more detail.