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  • Writer's pictureJoan Rothchild Hardin

Umeboshi Plums – Tasty and Alkalinizing

Having recently returned from Japan, I thought it fitting to write about a set of quintessential Japanese foods that packs huge health benefits: umeboshi vinegar (also called ume plum vinegar), umeboshi plums and umeboshi plum paste. Although labeled as vinegar, umeboshi plum vinegar is actually the liquid left after Japanese nanko plums (they’re called plums in Japan but are technically more like little apricots) are preserved by brining with sea salt and red or purple shiso leaves. The mixture is allowed to ferment in barrels for a year. The sea salt draws the liquid from the plums and the shiso leaves give the brined fruits and liquid their natural pink tint. This is what the sour little fruits look like before they’re brined:

Soaking the harvested fruits to remove bitterness:

The red or purple shiso leaves that provide umeboshi plums and vinegar their pink color:

Umeboshi brining with red shiso leaves and sea salt:

After brining, the fruits look like this and are frequently served as a salty pickle during a Japanese meal:

The salty little brined fruits are an acquired taste, but umeboshi vinegar is mild, somewhat salty and an excellent condiment with many uses.

HEALTH BENEFITS Umeboshi plums are considered the king of alkaline foods, highly respected in Japan for their remarkable medicinal properties in balancing the body and helping with indigestion. Even sucking on an umeboshi plum pit can settle a queasy stomach. (Minifie, 2013) Because they are high in citric acid, which has a powerful, paradoxical alkalinizing effect on the body, umeboshi plums are the  Far Eastern equivalent of both aspirin and apple,  a potent hangover remedy and one of the best preventive medicines available. An umeboshi a day keeps the doctor away. A 1000 year old Japanese medical text discussed the use of umeboshi to prevent fatigue, purify water, rid the body of toxins and cure specific diseases such as dysentery, typhoid and food poisoning. During the samurai period in Japan, which lasted through most of the Middle Ages, this fermented plum was the soldier’s most important field ration. It was used to flavor foods such as rice and vegetables. Its high acidity made it an excellent water and food purifier as well as an effective antidote for battle fatigue. (Mitoku, no date) In China the dried plums are use medicinally to reduce fevers, treat nausea and control coughs.  (Weil, 2010) The Standard American Diet (SAD) is high in refined sugars and red meat, both of which severely acidify the body, producing inflammation – the gateway to many serious ailments. An overly acidic diet is at the core of many symptoms such as fatigue, digestive imbalances, emotional imbalances and anxiety. Adding foods to our daily diet that alkalinize the blood, urine and saliva can help restore balance and health again. See INFLAMMATION to read more about its adverse affects on our health. Umeboshi plums, paste and vinegar are such super foods. They have been consumed in Japan, China and Korea for centuries for this medicinal purpose. Umeboshi foods are created via a lactic fermentation process using only Japanese plums, shiso leaves and sea salt. Shiso leaves have many medicinal health benefits themselves that contribute to the antimicrobial and infection fighting components of umeboshi. See PREBIOTICS AND PROBIOTICS and KEFIR for more information on the health benefits of fermented foods. Umeboshi has  traditionally been used to treat:

  • Fatigue

  • Alcohol poisoning (hang-overs)

  • Vomiting

  • General nausea (including pregnancy and motion sickness)

  • Diarrhea and dysentery

  • Infection

  • Runny nose

  • Liver toxicity

  • Oxidation of cells

The addition of an umeboshi plum in rice dishes adds a pleasant salty and sour taste and also combats the bacterial growth in rice known as Bacillus cereus. A popular Japanese dish often found in Japanese and Korean markets is called onigiri – sticky rice wrapped in either nori (seaweed) or on its own with an umeboshi plum in the center. Traditionally, these plums are said to have been used by the samurai to keep up their stamina, stave off fatigue and help heal between battles. They were a staple in their daily diets. In more recent times, they are enjoyed with green tea, as the opposing flavors juxtapose each other nicely. Eating an umeboshi plum before breakfast helps stimulate digestion for the day. They are also high in iron (important for hemoglobin production, stress reduction and immune function), thiamin (important for healthy nervous system, metabolism and digestion), and riboflavin (helpful for the formation of antibodies, healthy metabolism and cortisol production). Try eating a few umeboshi plums the morning after a party or after a lengthy flight to combat jet lag, nausea and exhaustion.  (Smythe, 2012)

USES * With its salty, somewhat sour, fruity taste, umeboshi vinegar makes an interesting seasoning. The Japanese toss it with steamed vegetables and sprinkle it over sauteed greens and rice. Use it creatively in vegetable dishes when you want to add a sea-like flavor.  You can also use it in lieu of fish sauce for a lighter fishy taste. * Umeboshi vinegar nicely tempers the spiciness of bitter greens like arugula and watercress. * Drizzle salads with extra-virgin olive oil and a small amount of umeboshi vinegar – remember it’s salty so start with only a little. Toss and taste. Add more if needed. * Add a little umeboshi vinegar to dark leafy greens such as kale to amplify their mineral-y goodness.  (Minifie, 2013) * From the back of my bottle of Mitoku brand Ryujin Authentic Umeboshi Vinegar Pickled Plum Seasoning: “The Ume plums from Ryujin village are very special. Gathered in remote mountain orchards from trees that have never known chemicals, they have a wild quality and are exceptionally flavorful. Traditionally hand-pickled with Shiso leaves and sea salt, the tart red juice drawn from the kegs of pickled plums is prized as a gourmet vinegar. “A convenient, zesty seasoning, Mitoku Ryujin Umeboshi Vinegar adds refreshing flavor and goodness to many foods. Use it to perk up salad dressings, cooked vegetables, homemade quick pickles, and tofu dips and spreads. When substituting Umeboshi Vinegar for regular vinegar, reduce or eliminate the salt in the recipe. “TANGY GREENS: Steam or saute cabbage, Chinese cabbage, cauliflower or broccoli until just tender, then toss with Umeboshi Vinegar to taste.”  * Some other recipes for cooking with umeboshi plums, umeboshi paste and plum vinegar:  Braised cabbage, cole slaw, orange-ume dressing and umeboshi tea

Onigiri Umeboshi

Umeboshi vinegar and plums are imported into the US from Japan. You can find umeboshi vinegar and perhaps also the brined plums in health food stores and Asian food markets – even Amazon sells both. Just make sure the brand you buy uses shiso leaves, not food dye, and no artificial preservatives. Having tried the jarred plums here in New York and found them unpleasantly salty, I didn’t really appreciate their loveliness until tasting the numerous varieties that came with most of the meals I had in Japan. Some were saltier than others and they varied in flavor intensity. I liked them all, especially as one of the pickles eaten with rice.

In Memorium I thank Carol Hornig for introducing me to umeboshi plums and vinegar. She was a talented nutritionist and splendid human being who is sorely missed.

REFERENCES Minifie, K. (2013)  WANT. Ume Plum Vinegar. Epicurious. See Mitoku. (No date). Braised cabbage with umeboshi. See Mikoku. (No date). Cole slaw with umeboshi. See Mitoku. (No date). Health Benefits of Umeboshi. See Smythe, Y. V. (2012).  Umeboshi Plums Health Benefits. Naturally Savvy. See Weil, A. (2010). Umeboshi: Japanese Health Food? Dr. See © Copyright 2014 Joan Rothchild Hardin. All Rights Reserved.

DISCLAIMER:  Nothing on this site or blog is intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Comments submitted prior to 8/25/2021

[…] brand I purchase has three ingredients: ume (Japanese plum), sea salt and shiso. Check out the site Allergies and Your Gut for more information on the making of umeboshi vinegar and its many health […]

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