Ume “plums” (actually related to apricots) become available around this time for about a month. There’s a rush to preserve them for snacks, seasoning, vinegar, wine, and spirits, and it’s associated with significant cultural celebrations in many parts of East Asia. I didn’t have time to put on a major festival, but did throw together an impromptu preservation party, inviting other ume enthusiasts to take advantage of the California ume co-op’s crop this year.
We made umeboshi and maeshu, and tasted vodka and shochu based maeshu thanks to some participating friends! The latter is simple: pack ume into a jar and douse with clear alcohol of 25% or higher proof.
For salt-preserved ume, we layered ume in coarse sea salt and Vietnamese purple shiso or tia to, which will give it a mild clove and cinnamon-like flavor. There was no need for washing, which would remove helpful yeast, because the fruit was grown organically — so hard to find! I got salt from a Korean grocery store, and am very particular about the shape and source. I find fine and rock salt makes the whole thing too salty, while coarse salt plays both the role of increasing surface area contact between ume and salt and not introducing too much salt. Sea salt that hasn’t been iodized introduces minerals yet doesn’t kill beneficial bacterial cultures. Since us organizers Minh of Porridge and Puffs, Diep of Good Girl Dinette, and I are Vietnamese, we used tia to. Korean or Japanese purple shiso mainly gives it color but doesn’t impart a strong flavor, which we wanted.
Once the jar is packed full, it’s important to make sure the plums are covered in salt. The salt will extrude the ume’s juice, which preserves the fruit and prevents mold growth. There’s a tricky part beforehand when the fruit isn’t immersed yet and it’s tempting to press the fruit down. Doing so, however, bruises the fruit and can cause mold. Abrasions from the pressure against hard salt also introduce the possibility of contamination, though the young fruit develops a protective sap that can resist some bacteria. It’s hard to find completely straight jars to fit a full coverage surface on the ume, but Alexandra of GROW and Slow Food LA had a great suggestion of filling a bag with water and putting it on top to add pressure. You could also wash some rocks and stack them on top!
The jar can be left in the sun to expedite the process, but it increases the chance of water moisture and rot. I keep mine in a dark, cool place with consistent temperature, usually a corner of the house. My grandma puts it in a west-facing window, my aunt puts it in a north-facing window. We’ve each come out with good results, so I’m not sure if there’s a big difference. The sun probably expedites the process and maybe there are different times for cool and for sun. What do you do?
Once the ume is immersed by its own juices, about 2-3 weeks later, the fruit is taken out to sun dry for a few days or until the skin becomes a little tough. The salty juice is bottled and can be used as a vinegar or seasoning. Personally, I like mixing it with some honey, water, and ice for a refreshing beverage on hot days. The sun-dried ume goes back in the jar and can be eaten throughout the year. They can be left to dry further if making xi muoi (a bit in this June 2016 post).
I hope everyone’s creations turn out well!