|BIG IN JAPAN
plums) often turn up in unexpected places, like the middle of rice balls or floating in a
Chu-hi drink. In the seventeenth century they also lurked in make-up bags, the pockets of
samurai and, more often than not, nestled in wounds under dressings and bandages.
Prunus mume, better known as the Plum or Japanese Apricot tree, was brought to
Japan from China in the eighth century. Although there is only one species of ume, there
are over 300 varieties, varying in color, shape and size, but all have fruits that are
smaller and less sweet than their European contemporaries. The unripe fruit are used to
make wine, vinegar or are pickled.
Umeboshi are made in June, when green, immature plums come onto the market. They are cured
in salt for about two weeks, then packed with salted shiso leaves (beefsteak
plant) to impart a red color and marinated for a further four weeks. They can either be
eaten straight from the jar or sun-dried for a few days, until they resemble an anemic
In the Edo Period (1600-1868) it was realized that eating umeboshi could combat fatigue.
The citric acid in the fruit converts lactic acid into water and carbon dioxide, which can
easily be discharged from the body. If allowed to accumulate in the body, (usually as a
result of an inefficient flow in the Kreb' Cycle,) lactic acid can cause tiredness and
exhaustion. Obviously samurai didn't understand the scientific reasoning behind this, but
they did realize that if they always had a ready supply of umeboshi they could be alert
and ready for action.
The demand for umeboshi also steadily increased due to its use as a color fixative for
cosmetics, a fabric dye and a medicine.
The first record of umeboshi being used for medicinal purposes is in the tenth century,
when it was reportedly used to treat Emperor Murakami. Throughout history, this sour fruit
has been used as a cure for vomiting, intestinal worms, fevers, coughs and colds. Today
the older generation still say "One umeboshi for breakfast will save you from
diarrhea!" and many Japanese regularly eat one every morning, washed down with
copious cups of green tea. In fact there is quite a lot of scientific evidence to support
the benefits of eating umeboshi. The sour, alkaline taste stimulates the secretion of
saliva and gastric juices, activating the digestive system. The citric acid in the dried
fruit also increases metabolism and, more importantly, assists the absorption of calcium
in the intestine. The pyric acid in ume fruit enhances liver function and can help break
down alcohol in the liver, so it is often recommended to eat umeboshi (and drink a large
quantity of tea) as a hangover cure.
An old-fashioned herbal pain-killer is bainiku-ekisu, (literally "ume flesh
extract") although it is actually grated, condensed flesh rather than an extract.
Bainiku-ekisu can be applied in a poultice to the cheek or forehead as a cure for tooth
and headaches. Another old wives remedy for coughs and colds is umeninnikunegi
(pickled ume, garlic and leek soup). The theory behind this soup is that both umeboshi and
garlic have sterilizing qualities and leek alleviates fevers.
A more popular way of eating umeboshi is as a dressing, known as umeshoyu; one
finely chopped umeboshi is mixed with two tablespoons of shoyu (soy sauce) and sake
(rice wine) or mirin (sweetened sake) to taste and served with chicken, seafood
In addition, this wizened little fruit also acts as a sterilizer and antibacterial agent.
It contains organic acids that can kill bacteria, so an umeboshi is usually included in a
bento lunchbox, as a "garnish," to prevent food-poisoning, especially during the
summer months when bacterial growth is greatest and hydrochloric acid levels in the
stomach are lowest. It is also added to onigiri riceball-fillings to prevent
spoilage. Truly a fruit for all seasons!
Whether consumed as a sweet, fruit, paste, dressing or medicine, there seems little doubt
that eating an umeboshi a day may keep the doctor away.