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.

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