What is Umeboshi? Learn About Traditional Japanese Pickled Ume Fruits

by Megan Taylor Stephens

What is Umeboshi?

Plain and simple, umeboshi are pickled plums. Ume () means “plum” and boshi (干し) is a form of the verb “to dry” (干すhosu). So, what is ume specifically? In reality, ume fruit are technically more closely related to the Japanese apricot than peaches, and umeboshi are dried and salted rather than pickled per se. Pickled plums that are not dried are called umezuke (梅漬け). So the more explicit way to translate umeboshi is “Japanese salt-pickled plum.”

The main thing to know is that umeboshi plums may be tiny little unassuming bite-sized morsels, but they pack an unforgettable, mouth-puckering punch! Once you get over the potent lemony and salty flavor of the Japanese plum, you’ll forever be their fan.

What is the History and Origin of the Umeboshi Plum?

Umeboshi plums made their way to Japan via Central China about 1500 years ago. They were considered a health tonic. With their high citric acid and sodium content, warriors consumed the Japanese pickled plums to revitalize their sore muscles and recover from battle fatigue. 

This was during the Warring States period (戦国時代 sengoku jidai), which was basically a civil war lasting from 1467-1615 and involved various clans jostling for power. The samurai warriors were in constant battle and they wore heavy armor, up to 60 pounds in all. They were in dire need of a preserved snack that gave them energy but wouldn’t spoil—similar to multivitamins—and they found it in the umeboshi plum! 

Umeboshi have enjoyed widespread popularity throughout Japan ever since they were used by samurai as their secret energy booster. To this day, umeboshi are commonly eaten when one is sick with a cold, flu, or hangover. 

How are Umeboshi Made?

Nanko ume (南高梅)is the umeboshi plum of choice. The small ume fruit is typically picked in June after turning yellow. They are washed, coated in sea salt, and placed in a barrel. The large quantity of salt pulls out the plum juice and lets the pickled plum bathe in the vinegary liquid.

About a week later, an herb called shiso or “perilla” can be added to give the umeboshi a reddish color. When the weather turns sunny, the salted plums are laid outside to dry for about three days. Then they’re ready for incorporating into Japanese cooking, adorning Japanese dishes, and stimulating your taste buds! 

Because they are well preserved, umeboshi plums can be stored in your fridge for several months as long as they are in a jar with a tight lid. 

How are Umeboshi Eaten?

If you like the salt and vinegar flavor combination in foods, you’ll appreciate how an umeboshi sour plum adds zest and zing to any meal. Nothing beats the simplicity and nostalgia of a bowl of freshly steamed rice with a Japanese pickled plum on top. There are, however, other ways to enjoy umeboshi. Here are a few:

  • A single tangy umeboshi plum can be stuffed in the center of an onigiri rice ball, which is then nibbled on like a sandwich with a hidden treasure inside.
  • Umeboshi bits are a common ingredient in furikake, which is a seasoning mixture of nori seaweed, sesame, and other flavorings that is sprinkled on top of rice.     
  • You can make ochazuke with umeboshi. Sprinkle some seasonings, such as furikake, on top of a bowl of rice. Top it with an umeboshi, then pour some sencha green tea over the rice until it is partially submerged. Voilà, you now have ochazuke!       
  • Umeboshi can be turned into a delicious, aromatic condiment called neri ume. You mash it and plop the umeboshi paste onto rice or use it as a base for things like salad dressing. You can cut some of the acidity and salinity by adding mirin and honey or sugar to the umeboshi paste. 


More Japanese Plum Snacks

Ume and umeboshi are staples that show up in lots of classic Japanese cuisine, from plum wine (umeshu) to plum candy. Plums appear in many Japanese sweets as well as in savory snacks and other Japanese cooking. Here is a sampling of some umami yet sappari (light and refreshing) Japanese snacks featuring ume plums:

Koikeya Minit’s Stick Potato: Suppa Mucho Plum—These thin and delicate potato sticks have attracted ardent fans. Although they are salty and starchy, the tangy umeboshi flavor gives them a fruity and refined finish. They’re so light and delicious that they’re hard to put down. Good thing there are six packs in the order! 

Lotus Root Chips: Plum Flavor—Lotus root is usually stir-fried or steamed in Japanese cuisine, but this ingenious version is fried like potato chips. The lotus rounds—called renkon—are light, salty, and full of nutrients. A bonus is that they have a cute lacy pattern. With their lemony plummy flavor, these lotus chips have the perfect amount of tang! 

Seaweed Tempura and Shrimp Chips: Plum + Red Shiso—It’s hard to describe all the quintessentially Japanese flavors going on in these chips. There is the maritime undertone coming from seaweed and shrimp, then there’s the hearty tempura taste that is somehow not too heavy. Add the tartness from plums and shiso, and you discover that the flavor combination works and your bag of crispy chips will be gone!  

Sample Japanese Snacks Every Month

You can enjoy the varied flavors of Japan by signing up for a Bokksu membership. Every month, you will get a box of 20-24 authentic, artisan snacks, sweets, and teas to try. Whether you are well versed in Japanese food and are craving specific treats, or just curious about the world of Japanese food, a Japanese subscription box is your passport to adventure!

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Author Bio

Megan Taylor Stephens interest in the Japanese language, culture, and food goes way back. She was a Japanese exchange student in high school. Then she studied Japanese and linguistics in college, returned to Japan to work through the JET program (Coordinator of International Relations), and was an interpreter and translator for a while. Megan taught English as a Foreign Language in Japan and other countries before getting a Master's degree in ESL and becoming an ESL teacher. She then pivoted to becoming a school-based speech-language pathologist, so still gets to be immersed in the field of applied linguistics and loves working with bilingual students. Megan enjoys writing on the side for companies like Bokksu. A love of language, culture, travel, food, and learning never dies, it only gets more intense--just like cravings for ramen and Pocky!