Here’s a quick guide to umeboshi — fermented or pickled Japanese ume plums, which are fruits that resembles apricots. You’ll find tips for how to use the whole umeboshi plums, plus the paste and vinegar derived from them.
Umeboshi is the term for a sour plum once used primarily for medicinal purposes. Legend has it Samurai warriors consumed them before heading into battle for extra fortitude; today, they’re touted as a great hangover cure.
To make umeboshi (literally meaning “salted plum”), ume plums are pickled in cedar vats for 3 to 4 weeks to draw out their juices. They’re then dried (traditonally, they were sun-dried) and returned to their vats with crushed shiso (beefsteak plant) leaves, which give them their characteristic dark pink color.
Good-quality umeboshi plums are then allowed to age for a year. The result is a powerfully sour and salty taste sensation concentrated into these little plums.
Is umeboshi good for you?
Ume plums contain iron, calcium, and traces of other minerals, plus vitamin C and enzymes that are believed to aid digestion and settle stomach discomforts.
“People in Japan have eaten umeboshi for centuries, having learned from experience of their restorative and preservative properties along with their virtues in helping to ward off colds and other bugs.” See more in The Health Secrets of Japan’s Sourest Fruity Treat.
What does umeboshi taste like?
With three times more citric acid than lemons, ume offer a super-sour flavor that’s enhanced by the salt content (which is used to cure the fruit). Salt content is high to make the product shelf stable. If not sufficiently salted, the fruit can rot or mold.
Presenting such a pronounced flavor, umeboshi plums and paste, especially, are usually combined with mild ingredients, especially rice, to add flavor rather than to be popped whole onto the tongue. As Eat This, Not That states: “For many, the umeboshi plum is a mouth-puckering, sour, and salty acquired taste, but for people in Japan, it’s a centuries-old superfood.”
This paste consists of pitted, pureed umeboshi plums, making it easy to blend with other ingredients such as soy sauce, mayonnaise, and oil and vinegar dressings. It may also be used as a pungent condiment for spreading on crackers, rice cakes, or crisp vegetables. See more on Umeboshi Paste is the Vegan Flavor Bomb You Didn’t Know You Needed.
With the same sour and salty flavor of the plums, this liquid is derived from the pickling of ume plums. Use it as you would any other vinegar—in salad dressings, marinades, and to make pickles. Use sparingly, since its powerful flavor goes a long way.
Drizzle umeboshi vinegar over steamed, sautéed, or stir-fried vegetable dishes. Use it as a substitute for fish sauce in Asian recipes, and instead of anchovies in others.
Where to buy and how to store umeboshi products
Look for umeboshi plums, paste, and vinegar at natural foods stores and in Asian Markets. There are many online sources as well. Simply search “where to buy umeboshi” and the specific product you’re seeking — plums, paste, or vinegar — you’ll get many results.
In natural foods and specialty foods stores, umeboshi are sold in tubs or jars. Take note of the ingredients on the label — the only ones that should be listed are ume plums, shiso (beefsteak) leaves, and sea salt.
Because of their high sodium content, umeboshi plums and their products are shelf stable and it’s most often accepted that they don’t need refrigeration. If you feel most comfortable with refrigerating, especially the whole plums, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to do so. Here’s more about storage and how long to expect umeboshi products to last.
How to make your own umeboshi
Homemade umeboshi plums or paste are still made in many Japanese households. Though the procedure isn’t that complicated, it’s not something often tackled by Western cooks.
If you have kitchen curiosity and a DIY spirit, you might like to give it a try. You’ll need fresh ume plums, which are most seasonal in early spring (and most likely found in Asian produce markets), red shiso leaves, and coarse sea salt. And of course, the same kind of sterile jars you’d use for pickling. Here are a couple of recipes for making umeboshi:
Here’s a recipe for onigiri rice balls with umeboshi
How to use umeboshi plums, paste, and vinegar
- Sushi or onigiri: One of the most common ways of using these pungent plums is to insert a piece of a umeboshi into a sushi roll or incorporate into rice balls (onigiri); see link to recipe, above.
- On rice: A whole umeboshi is customarily set atop of a mound of plain rice.
- Bento boxes: Umeboshi are a welcome addition to bento boxes.
- Salad dressing: The pulp of one plum (or a spoon of paste) blended with a cup or so of an oil-and-vinegar dressing goes a long way toward making a unique flavor statement and is very good on a salad of strong greens. Of course, you can simply use the prepared paste for this, too.
- Corn-on-the-cob: Umeboshi paste may also be spread thinly on corn on the cob.
- Pesto: Add a spoonful of paste to give a flavor boost to pesto sauces.
- Morning pucker-up: Or, you can simply do as generations of Japanese eaters have done—simply eat a whole umeboshi upon awakening. It’s a most mouth-puckering way to wake up!
Vegan Recipes Using Umeboshi Plums, Paste, and Vinegar
- Raw Vegan Ume Pickled Plum Noodle Soup
- Umeboshi Kidney Beans
- Corn with Umeboshi
- Seasonal Veggie and Umeboshi Soup (Macrobiotic)
- Umeboshi Roasted Vegetables
- Basil Pine Nut Pesto
Explore more of this site’s Good Food Guides.