Although I have had many memorable meals in Kyoto, I remember one late summer supper with a friend at a restaurant nestled between leafy trees. The evening was warm, and the first course was an aperitif, a short glass filled halfway with a beautiful, golden liquid. At first, I thought it was whiskey, but my friend Yuko told me it was a quintessential Japanese specialty called umeshu, a liqueur made from unripened Japanese plums. After a celebratory kanpai, I took a sip and instantly fell in love with its complex, sweet, tart, slightly floral and refreshing flavor.
“...a signature flavor in Japanese cuisine.”
Ume are Japanese sour plums, which are a pale green when harvested. Treasured for their tartness and subtle sweetness, ume, sweetened or pickled, is a signature flavor in Japanese cuisine. Harvested in the spring and then steeped in a clear liquor with rock sugar for a few months, umeshu is most often enjoyed over ice on a summer evening.
Although you can buy ready-made umeshu at most Asian and Japanese markets, making your own is an easy and deeply satisfying process. It takes some effort to find an ume producer in the United States, but is well worth it. Try calling your local Japanese or Asian market to see if they can order some for you—they’re in season in early June. There are many recipes that can be found, and each family’s traditional methods may vary, but here is a very basic recipe to get you started, courtesy of my dear friend Nami-san.
- 1 kg of Green Japanese ume plums, with peels intact
- 500-800 grams of white rock sugar (available at Japanese supermarkets or to be purchased online, white rock sugar is pure, 100% sugar that comes in jewel-shaped nuggets. This is a pure form of rock candy, which is usually colored and sold on sticks.)
- 1.8 litres of clear liquor (with alcohol content of 20% or more, such as vodka, everclear or shochu, a clear Japanese spirit)
- 1 sterilized 5-liter glass jar that seals tightly
- bamboo skewer
- linen towels
First, gently wash the ume and dry with a towel (linen is preferable because the fibers won’t stick to the fruit). When completely dry, use the flat side of a bamboo skewer to remove every bit of stem from the fruit. Make sure not to scratch the peel, as exposing the ume flesh may invite mold or bacteria. If you do not have a bamboo skewer, a wooden toothpick will also work. Ume reacts to metal, so metal spoons or picks are not recommended.
Next, place the ume and rock sugar in alternating layers in the glass jar. Pour the white liquor over the ume and rock sugar and then tightly seal the glass container. Leave in a dark, cool area where the ume will not be disturbed, and let steep for 6 months. Umeshu will be ready to enjoy in six months. If you’re lucky enough to have any left over, be sure to enjoy within a year.