Ume (Japanese apricot) become plumper each time it rains here in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan's top production area of the fruit.
The town of Minabe is home to the renowned Nanko-ume. It was 44 years ago that the "ume ka" (ume section) was opened in the village office of Minabegawa, which later became Minabe town.
"The skin of Nanko-ume is thin, and the fruit is plump and soft," says Yasuko Sakamoto, 39, who runs an ume farm with her husband, Kuniyuki, 43.
It is harvest time at the Sakamoto Farm that measures nearly three hectares, and the couple are at their busiest picking ume that fall on the blue nets spread under the trees.
Both Yasuko and Kuniyuki come from families that grew ume and are actively spreading the benefit of pickled ume at various events hoping to "return a favor to the ume." "Umeboshi," or pickled ume, is not only good to be eaten as is, but is also a handy cooking ingredient.
Seven years ago, Yasuko started a project called the Plum Kitchen, which is a child-rearing group and cooking class rolled into one.
"The mothers make various ume dishes while sharing their concerns about child-rearing," she says. "It serves a dual purpose, you know."
Yasuko also served as a vice-chair of the organizing committee for a "summit meeting" of female ume producers held in Minabe in February. She organized a fashion show of work clothes for ume producers and offered ume dishes.
This week the Sakamotos introduce the ever-popular fried chicken flavored with ume vinegar. It is a liquid that emerges when the fruit is pickled with salt. It can be used as a seasoning just like salt and soy sauce.
All it takes is to marinate the chicken in ume vinegar, dust with starch and flour and deep-fry.
"Mixing equal amounts of 'katakuriko' starch and flour is a trick I borrowed from a television program," says Yasuko. "I thought garlic makes it taste more professional. It tastes good even when it gets cold."
If you are not enamored of deep-frying, just sauteeing the marinated chicken in a frying pan will also work.
The fried chicken with the subtle flavor of ume tastes refreshing and appetizing. Ume-vinegared fried chicken is a popular lunch menu item at the local elementary and junior high schools. As always, it was served on June 6--the "day of the ume"--this year.
The pickled ume produced by the couple is the traditional sour "shiroboshi-ume," not those dyed red with "akajiso" leaves.
It reflects their belief that "the sour taste is the natural flavor of ume," and "only salt should be used to cherish the taste of fruit itself."
Pickled ume does not spoil easily, prevents food poisoning and keeps the blood flowing well.
"We are proud of the food culture of pickled ume," Yasuko says.
The couple have a simple tip: cook the rice with a pickled ume. The subtle pink color is sure to whet your appetite.
2 chicken thighs
2 cloves garlic
5 Tbsp ume vinegar (ume-su) (bottled ones may be used)
60 grams each of "katakuriko" starch and flour
Cut chicken into appropriate size.
Place chicken, grated garlic and ume vinegar in bowl (or plastic bag) and mix well.
Leave for about 3 minutes, place on sieve to drain ume vinegar.
Mix starch and flour, and dust chicken.
Heat oil to 170 to 180 degrees, deep-fry chicken for 3 to 4 minutes. It will become crispy if oil temperature is raised at the end.
Drain oil well on paper towel.
* * *
From The Asahi Shimbun's Watashi no Ryori column