Potential Energy: Sampling Ume in Wakayama Prefecture: Part 2
October 6, 2016
Left image: David McMahon
In the first part of our close-up on ume production in Wakayama Prefecture, we offered some background on these unique fruits, and how they are typically farmed and processed, with a particular emphasis on the most common preparation: umeboshi, or salt-pickled plum.
Bursting across the palate in a briny, citric cascade, these wrinkly, red flavor bombs need no accompaniment other than white rice, for a combination that is simple, singular and satisfying. But ume lovers in Wakayama and beyond have devised a host of ways to incorporate umeboshi and other plum derivatives into more sophisticated fare.
Pizza with mushrooms and honeyed umeboshi.
Umebishio is a versatile condiment that can be quickly whipped up by heating chopped umeboshi in a skillet with a similar quantity of sugar. The added sweetness mellows the flavor, for a zingy puree that can be used to enliven all manner of dishes, or even slathered onto bread.
Kitchen gambits employed on the farm of ume grower and entrepreneur Masahiko Gekko include the inclusion of umeboshi in the broth of somen noodles, and the use of umezu (the vinegar-like juices extracted from the ume as they cure) in casseroles to tenderize the meat.
Gekko also sends some ripe fruit to a local confectioner, who developed an original take on a traditional sweet known as daifuku. These soft mochi rice cakes are usually packed with a sweet filling such as anko bean jam, but this evolution supplements the traditional filling with tender ume, tangy plum jelly, and a light custard cream.
A selection of variously flavored umeboshi (right) and an ume daifuku.
In fact, Minabe boasts a number of businesses doing novel things with ume. One popular beachside cafe serves up a range of ume-centric pizza, pasta, and cocktail options to be enjoyed over stunning views of rocky promontories jutting into the Pacific Ocean.
Another local shop dedicated to the Japanese plum in all its permutations stocks a cavalcade of delectable sauces, seasonings, snacks, and spirits, along with ume-enriched takes on manju (a traditional Japanese confection that typically pairs anko with a soft, cakey outer casing), and ume kakigori (a shaved ice dessert immensely popular in summer).
Duly drooling at the thought of such varied and delicious fare, some readers may be wondering why ume isn't more widely known outside Japan. “Exports are very low,” laments Yoshiyuki Taira of the Minabe Town Authorities' Ume Division. “People overseas just don't seem interested in umeboshi.”
“Even where there are exports, the bulk of consumers are foreign-based Japanese,” concurs Gekko. “People know about umeshu, but few other countries have salty, sour dishes that fill a niche similar to umeboshi. And without the backing of a major brand with an established network, it's difficult to promote things overseas.”
These old friends explain how, though ume is a staple of home cooking in Japan, especially among older generations, a flavor profile at odds with the subtle tastes of most washoku means that ume dishes rarely find their way into high-grade Japanese restaurants and other settings in which foreign Japanophiles are likely to encounter them.
Recent years have also seen changes in the buying patterns of the Japanese public, as sales of seasonal umeboshi gift sets have declined, along with bulk purchasing by seniors who have traditionally stockpiled their favorite umeboshi to share with friends and relatives.
But Wakayama's ume industry has demonstrated the energy and flexibility to see off such tribulations in the past. Around the turn of the century, with Japan in recession after the bursting of the economic bubble, farmers such as Gekko were among the first to turn to the Internet as a means of reaching out directly to consumers.
And while the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011 hit many businesses hard, it brought an unexpected upturn in sales of ume, as consumers were re-awakened to the importance of foods that stored well. Small-scale home curing of umeboshi has also undergone something of a revival of late.
And needless to say, Minabe has long been at the heart of measures for the fruit's promotion. The establishment of the Ume 21 Research Centre in 1990 was followed in 2004 by the Ume Shinkokan (Ume Promotion Center). This educational facility boasts a range of interactive exhibits intended to build multi-generational awareness of the fruit's history and health benefits.
The promotion centre also provides a forum for the promotion of low-impact farming methods that are common among Minabe's ume growers, but have potential applications all over Japan. Underlain by the hard science of the research centre, long-established agricultural practices are adapted in tune with the local environment through sensible and selective incorporation of modern advancements.
Ume kakigori (shaved ice desserts).
A short train ride away in Tanabe, which also has a strong tradition of ume farming, is another eatery looking at once to past and future. Fittingly for a town best known as the birthplace of the semi-legendary warrior monk Benkei, as well as for several holy sites that form part of the UNESCO-registered Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route, this cafe attached to a Zen-Buddhist temple on the outskirts of the city specializes in shojin ryori, Japan's ancient indigenous Buddhist vegan cuisine. This mindful way of dining has recently found itself back in the spotlight due to an upsurge in interest for the macrobiotic and slow food movements.
With the premises surrounded by plum trees, ume are of course a staple feature on the menu. Umeboshi is soaked in shojin dashi stock, softening its flavor to match the understated dishes of shojin ryori. There are also regular appearances for nanko-ume takikomi gohan (rice steamed with chopped nanko-ume), as well as ume juice and cakes infused with ume syrup.
In a similar health-food vein, as Japan's society continues to age, another product gaining a following is ume extract. More a supplement than a food, this thick black paste contains the concentrated goodness of 4-5 kg of ume per jar. Advocates claim benefits similar to those attributed to umeboshi in ancient times, with the extract said to improve circulation, combat fatigue, and reduce the ill-effects of fat and alcohol consumption.
To Gekko, one of several growers moving in this direction, ume extract is a product that speaks directly to his initial interest in the medicinal properties of this mysterious fruit more than 30 years ago. “As a producer, this is the most positive I've ever been about the potential for a product to bring real benefits to people,” he says.
To the expert growers of Wakayama Prefecture, the merits of ume go beyond taste and even nutrition to deeper core health concerns, while processing the fruit oneself at home can be a highly engrossing and rewarding hobby. Thinking about the enduring appeal of this remarkable Japanese food, I am reminded yet again of the words of the young Masahiko Gekko: “It's all about potential.”
Text and images: David McMahon
Ume Promotion Center:
538-1 Taniguchi, Minabe-chō, Hidaka-gun, Wakayama Prefecture
514 Shimomisu, Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture 646-0216
Café de Manma:
1590-40 Haneta, Minabe, Hidaka District, Wakayama Prefecture 645-0004
1187 Oshine, Minabe, Hidaka District, Wakayama Prefecture