For the Love of Salty-Sour: Umeboshi!

I was at a friends house for dinner. While dinner was cooking, the host grilled up a tuna steak to have as an appetizer. He coated it in sesame seeds and grilled it so that the outside was seared beautifully while the inside was pink. He cut it into chunks and set out a bowl of dipping sauce made with tamari, cayenne, and a touch of sesame oil. It melted in my mouth.

I decided to try to recreate it at home but was shocked to realize that I didn’t have any tamari. As I dug through my cabinet, I remembered the umeboshi vinegar, which I proceeded to mix with cayenne and sesame oil for a new version of the dipping sauce. While not nearly the same thing as tamari, umeboshi does compliment sesame seeds very well, and is just about as salty. Of course the dish was not the same, but it worked.

I discovered umeboshi back when I worked as a chef at a vegetarian conference center. We used it in the citrus sesame noodle sauce. I learned then that a little umeboshi goes a long way. Though ume is commonly translated as plum, it’s actually made from a pickled species of Japanese apricot and the resulting pink paste is a traditional ingredient used widely in China, Japan and Korea. The fruit is mixed with salt and shiso leaves (member of the mint family, also known as the beefsteak plant), then pressed with weight and aged in barrels for a minimum of six months.

Umeboshi has an ancient history and is still revered for its medicinal qualities based on its PH-balancing level of alkalinity and ability to eliminate toxins. It’s said to cure maladies like morning sickness, anemia, indigestion, hangovers, and diarreah, to name just a few. Many macrobiotics believe that it’s very effective for preventing disease as well when used as a daily tonic.

You can use the beautifully pink, fruity vinegar or some of the soft, pickled fruit to add a delightful salty-sour taste to rice, soups, salads, steamed veggies, sauces, noodles, and dressings, though some just soak one umeboshi in hot water and drink it like tea. It’s particularly good with quinoa.

For a yummy quick snack, try mixing hot rice with umeboshi and tahini and wrapping it in a sheet of toasted nori like a burrito. Or try this recipe for grilled, steamed or boiled corn on the cob with umeboshi butter. Blend 1/4 soft butter with 1 tablespoon umeboshi and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Spread on and enjoy!