It's so sour that just looking at it makes you salivate. At least that's how the saying about umeboshi, or sour plum, goes. There's some truth in it, too — umeboshi has double the citric acid content of a lemon, so when you stick it in your mouth you can feel your cheeks suck into themselves. Nevertheless, Japanese people consume umeboshi often, not just to add flavor to things but straight up as a condiment with rice. Maybe it's because we believe that umeboshi has health benefits, like improving blood flow, helping digestion, and fighting bacteria. Or maybe because, when the red fruit is placed in the middle of a bento box full of white rice, it kind of looks like the Japanese flag.
Beyond its sourness, it's hard to describe the taste of umeboshi because it tastes really different depending on the specie of plum and how it's pickled. With plain rice, my favorite is the dark-colored medium-sized one that is pickled with bonito flakes. It has just the right blend of salty, sweet, and sour. With ochazuke, I prefer the giant pink one that is way too sour to eat on its own but perfect when doused with hot water and seaweed. I also love crushing the honey-coated one in hot water when I'm feeling under the weather.
One of the most popular ways to ingest ume in Japan and beyond is umeshu, or plum wine. It's actually pretty easy to make at home — my mother has made several jars of her own, each one aged differently (one is from the year I was born). Simply combine two pounds of unbruised, de-stemmed ume with two pounds of rock sugar in a large sanitized jar. Then pour seven cups of your favorite liquor — vodka, shochu, whiskey, brandy — over it. For best results, layer the ingredients like in the diagram on the right. It should be ready to drink in a few months, though it'll get sweeter as it ages.
Every installment of Taste Test will explore recipes, the science, and some history behind a specific food item.
Photo via FotoosVanRobin's Flickr