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Umeboshi, a pickled and dried apricot-like fruit much beloved by the Japanese, is both so salty and so sour that most Western palates find it, well, unpalatable. Fans of macrobiotics claim that this wrinkled little fruit is a warrior against problems with digestion, infection, and bodily discharge, a characteristic that is attributable to its highly alkaline chemical makeup. An umeboshi plum might be found snuggled in a little bed of white rice, or in a tea cup as vinegar, or in soups. While the taste might be an acquired one, umeboshi is firmly ensconced in the diets of many.
A true umeboshi vinegar is the result of the juices that gather in the wooden barrels in which the fruit has been packed at harvest. The fruit, which matures in early summer, is traditionally dressed in 20 percent salt, tightly packed into barrels, and weighted down to encourage them to let go of their juice. Umeboshi vinegar, called umezu, is not as easy to find as it once was since production methods are changing.
The Japanese and some Westerners claim a long list of healing and restorative powers lend the umeboshi plum a one-two punch. It is touted as everything from a hangover cure to a powerful fix for a bacterial infection. The traditional method of salt curing doesn’t fight the fruit’s health profile. More and more producers have begun using vinegar tinged with honey or kombu, a type of seaweed, along with a chemical preservative.
So popular is the umeboshi plum that even Japanese children are convinced it’s a treat. They beg for a crunchy candy version of the dried fruit, called karikari ume. Their parents have their own adult version of the treat, in which an umeboshi plum is tucked into the bottom of a shochu, which is a grappa-like distilled cocktail.
Other common uses of umeboshi include being added to dishes as a flavor enhancer or served premeal as an appetite enhancer in a cup of hot water, called umeshu. Some folks like umeboshi in combination with green tea. Umezuke, or ume that has been pickled and jarred rather than dried, is served as a side dish or condiment.
Many a Japanese parent will try to convince sick children to take okayu, a rice and umeboshi soup, when a cold has sapped their energy. This is easier to do than one might think, since historically, the famous Samurai warriors turned to umeboshi when they were battle weary. If it was good enough for the Samurai, most children may decide that it must be very good indeed.