One of the traditional Japanese food that strikes foreigners is “umeboshi.” It is a small red fruit that is also known as Japanese apricot, or Japanese plum, pickled and dried under the sun.
From the cute red look of it, you might imagine it as something sweet and desserty, but it is nothing like that. It is sour--strikingly sour if you took a bite of it assuming that it’s sweet.
Umeboshi has been a part of the Japanese diet for a long time. It started showing up on the dining tables of the general public from the Edo period (1603-1868), but its history goes way back. It has been served with tea or packed as travel snacks from around the Nara period in 8th century.
In the Sengoku period(1467-1600) when all the men had to go out on the battlefields, umeboshi was a life savior. Soldiers carried something called “umeboshi-gan” which was a ball made of umeboshi, rice powder and sugar. Thanks to the antibacterial effect of umeboshi, it saved soldiers from water pollution. The sourness of umeboshi draws out saliva, and cured their parched throat.
One of the many benefits of umeboshi is its antibacterial and sterilizing effect. Umeboshi contains organic acids such as citric acid, malic acid and succinic acid. It is especially rich in citric acid which is effective for fighting bacteria, making umeboshi a perfect cure for seasonal cold or diarrhea. People in old times knew about it, and used it as a medicine.
Citric acid also has important roles such as improving carbohydrate metabolism, fighting fatigue and pain, and supporting liver function. Whether you're a dieter, an athlete or a drinker, umeboshi could be your silver bullet.
According to the Kishu Ume Kouno Association, a type of polyphenol in ume called epoxylioniresinol has flu-fighting properties. According to a study, an extract derived from ume was poured on the liver cells of a dog infected with a flu virus (H1N1 type), and they found out that the proliferation of the flu virus was suppressed by 90%.
Now that we know that umeboshi can even kill a flu virus, there’s no reason to avoid it just because it tastes unfamiliar. Generally, people eat it with white rice, or make rice balls with it, but you may not be used to eating white rice with something strikingly sour like this. So we suggest you cook with it.
One of the best ways to cook with umeboshi is to cook it with meat. Thanks to the citric acid, umeboshi makes meat softer and taste better. For some reason, it tastes best with pork. So simply grill thinly sliced pork and season it with chopped umeboshi and a little bit of soy sauce.
It goes great with salads as well. Marinate umeboshi with sliced cucumber or daikon radish and it will serve as an appetite enhancing starter.
You can also enjoy it with alcohol. Again, the citric acid supports liver function, so umeboshi is a great companion with some drinks. Pick a shochu of your choice, add an umeboshi, and pour some sparkling water over it. It is called “ume sour” cocktail, and you can enjoy picking out the meat of the umeboshi with a swizzle stick as you drink.
About the author: Yumi Idomoto (@yumiid) is ACE(American Council on Exercise) Certified Health Coach and Personal Trainer. As she experienced her health decline from overwork and sugar addiction, she completely transformed her health by diet, exercise and lifestyle modification, and was able to overcome severe seasonal allergy and PMS. Since then, her passion has been to teach people about health and motivate them to find the best versions of themselves. She writes about the latest health facts and positive mindset on her blog “Health Literacy”, and also specializes in teaching body-weight based strength training.