Just hearing the words "pickled ume plum" may trigger a response from the taste buds, and not necessarily in a good way for those with an aversion to sour food.
But used wisely, this acquired taste pleases most palates.
"The use of pickled ume will enhance the flavor of any dish, be it Japanese, Western or Chinese. Just make sure not to use too much so that the sourness will hit you," says Yasuko Sakamoto.
Sakamoto, who has an ume farm in Minabe, Wakayama Prefecture, also runs Plum Kitchen, a cooking school focusing on ume dishes.
"Our repertoire is boundless," boasts the 39-year-old ume expert.
This week she introduces a sandwich using pickled ume as well as ume vinegar. The idea of an ume-flavored sandwich may seem strange, but don’t let that put you off. It consists of pork sauteed with a sauce made of "shiroboshi-ume" (white pickled ume not dyed with red "shiso" leaves), ume vinegar and honey; pickle made with ume vinegar, and vegetables. These ingredients combine to create a refreshing sweet-and-sour combination.
"Pickled ume and ume vinegar also go well with cheese and fresh cream," Sakamoto says.
She usually celebrates her 43-year-old husband Kuniyuki’s birthday by cooking his favorite dish: carbonara flavored with ume vinegar. The vinegar enriches the sauce made of fresh cream, egg and powdered cheese.
Another tip is to use ume dressing on salad for a tangy twist suitable for summer. Turn two white pickled ume into a paste, add 100 cc sweet sushi vinegar, 2 tablespoons olive oil and a bit of pepper and mix. Add 50 grams of finely chopped onion.
Kuniyuki heads Minabe-cho Korabo Kicchin (Minabe town collaboration kitchen), a group of ume producers promoting pickled ume culture in various ways. Hoping to please the children, they came up with pickled ume "gachapon."
By feeding 200 yen into a vending machine, a capsule containing pickled ume rolls out. The vending machines are found not only in Wakayama Prefecture, but also at Wakayama Kishukan, the prefecture’s local specialty shop in Tokyo.
"Pickled ume is food associated with caring thoughts," says Sakamoto. For instance, when you feel weak, a bowl of rice porridge with a pickled ume makes a great healthy comfort food.
Yasuko hopes to become an "umeboshi basan" ("pickled ume grandma" usually referring unkindly to old women with wrinkled faces), who spreads the use of this soothing food.
10 thin slices bread (for sandwich)
10 slices pork loin (buta-rosu)
1/2 head salad leaves (sarada-na)
Bit of pepper
Ume-flavored sauce (20 grams white pickled-ume paste, 1 Tbsp ume vinegar, 30 grams honey)
Ume-vinegar pickle (1/2 cucumber, some ume vinegar)
Finely slice cucumber lengthwise. Place in plastic bag and pour ume vinegar just enough to cover cucumber. Leave at room temperature for one hour.
Rinse cucumber, pat dry. Rinse salad leaves, finely slice tomato and onion.
Pound white pickled ume until it turns into a paste. Place in bowl and mix with ume vinegar and honey to make sauce. Dip pork slice one at a time and coat both sides.
Sprinkle pepper on pork, cook both sides in frying pan.
Toast bread lightly, apply generous amount of mayonnaise. Make sandwich with salad leaves, tomato, pickle, onion and pork.
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From The Asahi Shimbun's Watashi no Ryori column