Umeboshi: In the Kitchen or Medicine Cabinet?

Umeboshi:  In the Kitchen or Medicine Cabinet?
by Cynthia Briscoe

Umeboshi is useful  in both the kitchen and in the medicine cabinet.  This little wrink led salty and pickled fruit is a dynamo.

In the kitchen its tangy flavor adds pizazz and zing to many dishes and dressings.  In the medicine cabinet, it arm wrestles hangovers, diarrhea, the flu, headaches and upset stomachs.  It is a mercenary for the ‘bad guy bacteria’ that make you sick, and at the same time a champion for the ‘good guy bacteria’ that keep your engine purring and your blood quality from running amok.  If Eve had offered Adam an umeboshi instead of an apple, well, I think the history of mankind may have been decidedly different!

A unique marriage, through the fermentation of a simple trio of ingredients, creates the health-giving properties of umeboshi.  The star of the show is a small, often misunderstood fruit called ume (ooh-may).  For starters, it was mistranslated along the way as “plum,” when actually its closest kin is the apricot.  The skin is lightly fuzzy like an apricot, not smooth like a plum.  It is harvested while still firm and green and is very sour, even when it is ripe.  The second ingredient is purple shiso, a plant from the mint family with unique antiseptic properties.  It is prepared and layered in the crock with the ume and gives the final umeboshi a natural reddish hue.  Shiso is also known as ‘perilla’ or ‘beefsteak’.  Shiso can combat food poisoning, viruses, colds, inflammation, indigestion and asthma, to name a few.  The high quality sea salt is a key player as well, creating a sodium-balanced alkaline environment for ‘friendly’ bacteria to make a home and raise their families both in the crock and within your body when ingested.


My great teacher, Cornellia Aihara, taught me the value of these small incredible pickled fruit and how to make them.  Many products such as umeboshi, miso, and shoyu are primarily available as imports from Japan, but Cornellia encouraged her students to to be self sufficient and ecological by teaching us how to make many specialty foods at home.   “Importation too wasteful,” she’d say to us, and “What if boat stops coming? What will you do?”

This spring shortly after moving and distributing my compost, I was amazed to discover ume seedling everywhere I had distributed compost.  Baby ume trees sprouted in my garden, in the flower beds and even in the tall flower urns flanking our front door.  At Cornellia’s macrobiotic school, the Vega Study Center, we also had ‘volunteer’ ume trees that planted themselves in various marginal places on the property.  She claimed that the seeds had sprouted from discarded pickled umeboshi. I listened but was skeptical.  I thought, “Surely, there must be some mistake.  How is it possible for the seeds to sprout after being salted and pickled?”

My thoughts returned to her story when I saw the little trees sprouting everywhere I had added compost.  I hadn’t thought too much about it last fall, when I tossed the damaged or mashed umeboshi into the compost bin.

These umeboshi had been sorted out three months after their entry in the pickle crock.  (In the fall, the umeboshi are removed from the crock and spread out on baskets for three days to dry.)  What a hearty little fruit!  The life force housed within the pits survived composting and even three months of pickling.  Cornellia was proven right.

Another lesson is how Life, Nature, and Community are so beautifully integrated within the process of making homemade umeboshi.  Most of us do not have the opportunity to share with others in harvesting and producing food as a group.  The picking, cleaning, stemming and pickling of ume at the Vega Study Center, was a community affair, made easier and fun by everyone’s help.  My favorite ‘ume time’ was harvesting the fruit.  Imagine ladders, plenty of buckets, jokes and children playing tag in the orchard.  Completing the task was cause for celebration with a picnic.

Umeboshi are not difficult to make, as nature does most of the work, but since each ume must pass individually through human hands during numerous processes, many hands make lighter work.  The initial process begins in June when the ume fruit is picked from the trees.  Next a tiny stem must be removed from each piece of fruit.  Then the ume is washed and soaked overnight.  The following day, the ume is drained and dried in baskets before it is placed in the crock with layers of sea salt.  In July, after the shiso is fully grown and harvested, the ume must once again be removed from the crock, drained and then layered with rubbed, salted shiso.  Two to three months later, the crock is re-opened and the umeboshi is spread out on bamboo mats or baskets in a single layer to dry.  For three days, each individual plum must be turned once per day and preferably brought in at night to avoid the dew.  Finally it’s back to the crock where they can rest until pulled out for eating. The skin and flesh of each umeboshi is soft.  If they are not handled gently and coaxed out of the crock, the umeboshi will tear.  So you see, there is a great deal of care and attention that each individual ume receives.   And now you can understand why umeboshi are not cheap at the store!

For their contributions, I would like to give special thanks to my friend, Keiko Tokuda, for helping me move the heavy baskets of umeboshi upstairs from the basement and arrange the umeboshi on the mats to dry.  I would also like to thank our friend, Meiko, for her generous supply of beautiful organic shiso from her garden, essential to the making of these umeboshi.  These good memories and their generous spirit flavors these umeboshi.

Click here to order my homemade umeboshi


Many people ask if they can study umeboshi-making with me, but unless you live nearby it would be difficult, because the entire umeboshi process takes place in stages over many months.  But I am starting production of a “How To Make Umeboshi” video.  This way students all over the world will be able to learn


This fall, I will offer an advanced course in traditional macrobiotic homemade foods.  You can come and learn hands-on how to make white miso, tempeh,  natto, amasake, seitan (wheat meat), takuan (daikon rice bran pickles), steamed rice bread, ohagi, tekka, shiguri miso, and many other gems of the traditional macrobiotic kitchen that are usually bought in stores, if they are available, at very a high price.  But they are not as hard to make as you might think, and they taste so much better than anything you can buy.  Making these products at home can be something you make for your family to enjoy, can save you money or could even turn into a shared group event and celebration.


UPDATE: The current supply of homemade umeboshi is completely sold out. The next crop will be available in 2011.

CONDIMENTS: Gomasio (Gomashio)

Gomasio (Gomashio)

1 cup plus 2 Tablespoons sesame seeds

1 Tablespoon sea salt

1. Place sesame seeds in a bowl and cover with water.  Pour off the seeds that float to the top into a fine mesh strainer.

2. Repeat, covering with water and pouring out the seeds suspended in the water, somewhat like panning for gold.  Continue adding water and pouring off seeds until just a few are left in the bowl.  Check these last seeds for stones or pieces of sand.  If there are more than two or three pieces of sand or stones, repeat this washing process again.

3. Drain the seeds in the strainer.

4. Heat a skillet and roast the salt, stirring, until the salt is dry and loose.  The color may darken slightly.

5. Place the roasted salt in the suribachi and grind.  Periodically, brush the salt out of the grooves of the suribachi with stiff bristled pastry brush.  Continue grinding until the salt feels powdery and not “grainy”.

6. Dry the sesame seeds before roasting.  Place in a heavy skillet or Dutch oven over a medium flame.  Stir continuously with a wooden spoon, drying until the seeds no longer stick to the wooden spoon.

7. Heat a stainless steel frying pan over a medium flame.

8.   Cover the bottom of the pan with a thin layer of sesame seeds.  If the seeds start popping out of the pan and all over the stove top, reduce the heat.

9. Place a lid on the pan.  Shake the seeds in the pan in a back and forward motion similar to popping corn.  The seeds are done when you can crush a few seeds easily between the thumb and fourth finger.

10.  Pour the finished seeds into the suribachi with the ground sea salt.  Continue roasting the seeds as described above until all the seeds are roasted

11.  Grind the seeds in the suribachi with the sea salt until about 2/3 of the sesame seeds are crushed.

12.  Serve a sprinkling on grains as a condiment.  Gomashio may be stored in an air-tight jar for about two weeks for maximum flavor and freshness.

CONDIMENTS: Watermelon Rind Condiment

Watermelon Rind Condiment

Here’s a novel way to make use of those otherwise discarded watermelon rinds

One of the principles of macrobiotics is “no waste.” This recipe let’s us put it into action.

2 cups diced watermelon rind (white part with the outside skin trimmed off)

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1 tablespoon barley miso (or to taste)

1.  Cut away the outer green skin of the watermelon.  Dice the white part into 1/2″ cubes.

2.  Warm the oil in a cast iron skillet.

3.  Add the watermelon rind.  Saute 2-3 minutes over medium high flame.

4.  Add miso.  Mix in until the miso melts.

5.  Cover pot with a lid and cook until the watermelon rinds are semi soft.

6.  Serve as a condiment for grain, bread, or pasta.

CONDIMENTS: Pumpkin Seed Sprinkle

Pumpkin Seed Sprinkle

1/2 pumpkin seeds

1/2 cup tightly packed dulse (yields about 1/4 cup

powdered dulse)

1.  Unfold dulse and check for sea shells and stones

2.  Spread dulse on a cookie sheet and bake at 350? for 10 to 15 minutes, or until dulse can be

crushed easily.

3.  Place pumpkin seeds on another cookie sheet and bake at the same time for 10 to 15 minutes.

4.  Stir once after 5 minutes so the seeds bake evenly.  The seeds are roasted when they puff out and

are slightly golden.

5.  Place dulse in a suribachi and grind to a fine powder.

6.  Add roasted pumpkin seeds to the powdered dulse and grind with the pestle until about 2/3 of the

seeds are crushed.

7.  Serve over grains, porridge or creme soups.

VEGETABLES: A Simple & Delicious Pressed Salad

A Simple & Delicious Pressed Salad

Chinese Cabbage (napa cabbage), shredded or sliced thin

Red Radishes, cut into thin rounds

Sea salt

1. Wash and slice vegetables into very thin slices.

2. In a large bowl, mix vegetables and add about 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt per cup of chopped vegetables.

3. Mix gently by hand.

Transfer to a salad press and apply pressure to the press. If a press is not available, leave in a bowl and

place a small plate that fits inside the bowl, adding a weight on top of the plate.

5. Let the vegetables sit for 30?60minutes or more (depending on the vegetables, harder vegetables take

longer, leafy vegetables take less time) or until water is expelled from the vegetables.

6. If the vegetables taste too salty, quickly rinse under water.

7. Serve plain, with lemon juice, rice vinegar, or umeboshi vinegar.

• Nice pressed salads include: mustard greens or radish greens, chopped finely and pressed for 30 minutes; cabbage leaves, finely chopped, layered with sea salt, and pressed for 30 min­utes; carrots, grated, shredded, or cut into matchsticks, pressed for 30 minutes.

•   Ingredients may be pressed longer, up to a couple of days, to make light pickles.

• Brown rice vinegar, umeboshi vinegar, or shoyu may be used for variety in the press­ing instead of salt.

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