Umeboshi – What are they? – Japan

Following on the Japanese thread from this week I came across this article from the Japanese Times which describes a cooking technique and also gives a recipe at the very end…I was very intrigued by the word itself Umeboshi so was surprised to see it linked to culinary terms as I thought it was perhaps something more geographical … my Japanese sadly is getting no better.  I do love food though especially something that is different from my cultural food experiences so thought I would share this and the history behind it.

Below is the article:

Umeboshi: perfect in any culinary pickle

Special to The Japan Times

Japanese cuisine has more than its share of acquired tastes, and umeboshi are near the top of the list. Intensely sour and salty, these traditional tsukemono (pickles) are prepared over several weeks, starting in June when the fruits of the ume tree are ripe, and finishing up in July under the hot midsummer sun. Ume are related to plums and apricots.

Making enough umeboshi to last the rest of the year was a task in most Japanese households for hundreds of years. Both of my grandmothers made a batch faithfully every summer, each tasting entirely different from the other. My paternal grandmother made pale, moist ones that were more sour than salty, and my maternal grandmother made umeboshi that were so salty that the surface glistened with crystals.

They both made their umeboshi in similar ways, but the differences came from the amount of salt used and how the fruit was handled. My father’s mother lived in a small house in central Tokyo and did not have a lot of room to spread out her umeboshi, so she kept the drying (hoshi) phase short, the salt fairly low, and disinfected her pots with shōchū liquor to ward off mold. My mother’s mother lived in a small town and had the space to give her umeboshi lots of sun and air and relied solely on salt and the natural acidity of the ume to preserve them. Her umeboshi were as wrinkled and brown as her well-worn gardener’s hands.

It’s the latter ones I remember most fondly despite their intense saltiness, because they are so interwoven with my childhood memories of summer. Every August my mother would participate in the age-old custom of sato-gaeri — going back to the small town where she grew up, offspring in tow, for a week or two’s holiday. When us kids got back home every late afternoon, exhausted and soaked in sweat from running around wild all day, our grandmother would give us an umeboshi each.

This was in the days when people used to believe (erroneously, as it turns out) that one needed to take in extra salt during the brutally hot and humid summer; for my grandmother, making her grandchildren eat her umeboshi was her way of ensuring that we stayed healthy. Even now when I bite into an umeboshi, memories come flooding back of sitting on the porch with my cousins, mouth puckering, knowing that I’d soon be rewarded with a tall, icy glass of mugi-cha (barley tea), and maybe some watermelon that had been chilling all day in the well.

The first written records of umeboshi appear as early as the year 200. Initially it was ume-su (ume vinegar), the sour-salty liquid byproduct of the umeboshi-making process, that was prized. The liquid was used as an antiseptic on wounds, as well as to clean and chelate metal items such as bronze mirrors and temple bells. (Ume-su was widely used as an antiseptic well into the 20th century, until more modern antiseptics became available.) In later times, both the pickled fruit and the vinegar were used to treat various ailments, especially of the stomach.

Umeboshi and ume-su were especially cherished in times of war. During the medieval Warring States period (1467-1573), they were valued for their long shelf life, and warlords across the land ordered the planting of bairin (ume groves). Umeboshi were thought to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, ward off food poisoning, and more.

These beliefs continued even into the 20th century, when soldiers carried bundles of umeboshi with them to the front. In the early Showa Era (1926-1989), the humble umeboshi became part of a national patriotic symbol: the hinomaru bentō, consisting of a rectangular bed of plain white rice with a single umeboshi in the middle, resembling the Japanese flag.

Nowadays, umeboshi can be bought in department-store food halls, supermarkets, convenience stores and even ¥100 shops. They range widely in price and quality; cheap umeboshi with artificial flavors are rather nasty, but at the high end they are a gourmet treat.

Traditionally, the best umeboshi come from Wakayama Prefecture, which was called the Kishu Domain during the Edo Period (1603-1867). It was mainly in this region, and during this time, that umeboshi pickled with red shiso (perilla) leaves came into being. These reddish-brown to bright purple-red delights are what most people consider to be the quintessential umeboshi. In recent years, though, umeboshi that are are less salty and marinated in dashi stock (which adds lots of umami) have gained popularity. There are also very low-salt umeboshi that still retain the sweetness of the fruit.

Are umeboshi good for you? Probably so — in moderation. The main “good” ingredient in umeboshi and ume-su is citric acid, which is a natural preservative and conservative, as well as an appetite inducer. White onigiri (rice balls) made with umeboshi filling keep for a longer time than onigiri made with other fillings, and a traditional dish to eat when you’re sick is some plain rice gruel flavored with umeboshi. However, the high salt content is not that good for you, so it’s probably best not to have more than a couple at a time.

Where umeboshi really shine is in the kitchen. Think of them as flavoring agents or condiments rather than pickles; start by using just a little in sauces or on plain rice and so on. Add an umeboshi to a marinade for meat, or put one in the poaching liquid when you poach a chicken for a subtle flavor.

You may find that once you get used to them, you become addicted to their salty-sourness. The first time my husband, who’s Swiss, popped one in his mouth, he almost spat it out in horror, but now he loves them even more than I do. One of his favorite quick lunches is pitted and chopped umeboshi, butter, a drizzle of soy sauce and toasted sesame seeds tossed with freshly cooked pasta. (I like to add a dash of Tabasco.)

The umeboshi section of a department-store food hall can be rather overwhelming, especially during the midsummer and yearend gift giving seasons. Besides the pickled fruit themselves, you can also find a variety of ume-su, ume paste (neri-ume) and umeboshi-based sauces.

Traditionally made umeboshi can keep for years, even decades, and if they do go bad (they turn black) it’s thought to be a very bad omen. However, modern low-salt umeboshi, especially ones marinated in dashi stock, do not keep so well, and must be kept refrigerated and eaten before the best-by date.

Not that many people make their own umeboshi these days, but some still keep up the tradition, including my mother. Hers are somewhere in between the ones by my two grandmothers — a bright reddish brown, somewhat dried but still moist and smooth, salty yet not overwhelming. To me, they are perfection.

Makiko Itoh is the author of “The Just Bento Cookbook” (Kodansha USA). She writes about bentō lunches at www.justbento.com and about Japanese cooking and more at www.justhungry.com.
Recipe: Ume-dashi dressing or dipping sauceThis refreshing and versatile sauce can be used as a salad dressing or as a dipping sauce for cold noodles. I make the sauce without any oil, and add a little oil before using it as a dressing. The oil helps the sauce to cling to the ingredients in a salad. If you don’t want to make dashi stock from scratch, use 1½ teaspoons of dashi granules dissolved into 400 ml of water instead.

Makes about 400 ml

Water — 400 ml

Dry konbu seaweed — 1 10-cm piece

Red shiso-type umeboshi — 4 large

Katsuobushi (bonito flakes) — ½ cup (1 small handful)

Sake — 1 tsp

Mirin — 1 tsp

Light soy sauce — 1 tsp

Ume-su — 2 tbsp

Prepare the dashi stock by steeping the konbu seaweed in the water for 20 minutes, then bringing to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer.

While the konbu seaweed is steeping, pit the umeboshi and chop the flesh finely until it becomes a paste.

Put the stones into the dashi stock and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the mirin and sake, and simmer an additional 5 minutes. Add the bonito flakes. Turn off the heat, and leave until cooled down to lukewarm. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve.

Add the soy sauce, chopped umeboshi and ume-su. Mix well. Let cool, and store in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid in the refrigerator until ready to use. It will keep for a couple of weeks.

To use as a salad dressing, mix 2 tablespoons of the sauce with  ½ tablespoon of a light-flavored vegetable or olive oil. The best method is to put both in a small glass jar with a lid (not the one you store the sauce in) and shake vigorously.

You can also use the sauce straight up as a dipping sauce for cold udon or hiyamugi noodles; it makes an interesting change from regular noodle dipping sauce. If the sauce is too salty as-is, dilute it with a little water. Add thinly sliced myōga ginger, finely chopped green onion and toasted sesame seeds as garnish.

 

With thanks to http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fg20120525f1.html

Parents eye view of Bilingualism in reality – Sweden

Often as teachers we have little contact with parents, or even if we do they do not tell us how they feel about bilingualism and I wonder if sometimes they feel that they have no one to talk to either, and actually worry that they are doing ‘it’ wrong.  This is why I thought I would share this with you from Sweden where a mother explains how she notices her child becoming a confident bilingual speaker and expresses a little about how she feels.

http://www.thelocal.se/41118/20120529/ is the direct link to it or read it below. It is a great insight into the reality of bilingualism from the parenst perspective and the fact that she writes : ‘Interestingly, my two friends that were the most satisfied with their kids’ development were those who grew up with more than one language in their lives themselves. With the benefit of perspective that I lack on this issue, they seem able to embrace their kids’ language as a skilled yet imperfect work in progress.’ shows the teacher at work even as a mum.

The other day, I noticed a new dynamic in our family. Actually, if I look back, the change has been gradual, but I never really thought too much about it until last week when the kids came home from school.

After two years here in Sweden, Swedish is now our kids’ dominant language. This is how I found out.
Erik and Gabrielle were in the backyard, taking advantage of the year’s first streak of warm weather to jump themselves silly on our trampoline. And since it’s just the three of us, we’re all speaking English.
Then, Gabrielle says she’s thirsty, so I go inside and get a pitcher and some glasses. As I return to the back door, I pause and listen. They are speaking Swedish.
I walk back out with the water and call them over. They switch back to English. I’m curious, so I decide to test it: will they switch if I leave again? I walk inside again but stay by the door listening to the conversation.
I wish I could report that they meandered off into deep thoughts or were showering each other with compliments.  Actually, they started arguing.
“I want the tupp glas,” whined Gabrielle. She couldn’t come up with the English word rooster immediately, so she switched over to Swedish; tupp glas,” instead of rooster glass”. And Erik followed her.
I tested my theory a few times over the week, and the conversations followed the same pattern. And it never happened the opposite way; not once during a Swedish conversation did they spontaneously switch over to English.
I don’t mind this change at all. I want our kids to feel at home here in Sweden, and that feeling of connection is related, in part, to strong Swedish skills.
But this new development in our kids’ language raised a question that I hadn’t considered in a long time: what are my goals for our kids’ language growth?
As an idealist new parent, my goal was lofty and vague: they should be bilingual. I should have known better. Personal experience as well as education research suggests that bilingualism exists on a continuum.
It’s a practice that must constantly be maintained, and it can vary greatly among individuals. Bilingualism was a good starting point, but as an achievable goal, it ranked somewhere near my (broken) New Year’s resolutions like “eat healthier” and “write a novel”: good intentions, mediocre results… at best.
When we moved to Sweden, my goal was to keep the kids on par with grade-level Americans in speech, reading and writing… in case we decide to move back at some point.
Actually, I didn’t articulate this goal so clearly to myself, but now I can see this was my underlying expectation. But now I wasn’t sure if this was realistic.
Everything I had read in and out of education classes emphasized that successful bilingualism should be a conscious process, constantly reevaluated and fine-tuned.
Taking a page out of the guidelines for successful New Year’s resolutions, I set out to create some goals that were process-based (as opposed to result-based) and measurable.
But where to start?
While pondering, I realized there’s also some outside pressure related to this goal: home language classes.
Recently, I was told that, starting in 6th grade, my son’s home language teacher was going to give him his English grade, and it would be based on native, grade-level assessment. Now, my son has a very nice home language teacher, but how is this man expected to teach him the nuances of grade level English during one 45-minute class per week?
And as the primary English influence in their lives, the task of getting Erik and Gabrielle on par with their American counterparts would mostly be mine.
Was I up to this daily task? Just the thought of getting Erik’s hilariously phonetical spelling, governed by Swedish letter sounds, up to speed was enough to steer me in another direction. “Hapj brfdaj”? Where do I even start with that?
I had already done my reading, so I decided to do some research of a different kind: I asked my friends, two of which are managing three languages at home.
And despite the fact that I only have five native English-speaking friends here, their answers reached all ends of the spectrum.
Three had goals for their kids; two did not. A different two were satisfied with their kids’ progress in English—interestingly, friends’ satisfaction levels were not correlated to their kids’ skill levels.
Despite the range, I could identify with them all. Here are a few, insightful observations:
“It’s the little details that get fuzzy,” said one friend, “like saying ‘I’ll hop over it’ instead of ‘I’ll skip it.’ My kids don’t hear it’s wrong, and after a while, I don’t either.”
As my friend says this, I wonder if it is even possible for me to give my kids the native ear for the language. Surrounded by Swedish-influenced English mistakes, this seemed to be an uphill battle.
After being here for a few years, another friend had relaxed her expectations.
“I don’t want language to be a source of anxiety for the kids,” she said.
“Now, my goal is to help them develop a base so that, given a transition period, they could adapt to their next English situation.”
One friend found her kids’ difficulties with English was a source of frustration.
“It’s like the communication between me and my kids comes through a filter. When I hear other kids their age back home speaking English, I feel like I’m missing something of my own kids’ true personalities.”
But my goal-free friend who keeps up three languages in her home was much more sanguine:
“They’ll be fine,” she says.
And she should know: she grew up in a Spanish-speaking country, but spoke English around the house with her American mom. Then, she went to college in the US, directly into classes with the other native speakers.
“I won’t lie—my first semester was really difficult. All I did was study, but by the next semester, I was fine.”
Now, she supports both Spanish and English here in Sweden.
“For a long time, my son answered me in Swedish. But a few weeks ago, we spent some time with a Spanish exchange student. Now, he’s switched back to Spanish with me.”
In other words, relax. Don’t worry too much about the future. Det löser sig.
Interestingly, my two friends that were the most satisfied with their kids’ development were those who grew up with more than one language in their lives themselves.
With the benefit of perspective that I lack on this issue, they seem able to embrace their kids’ language as a skilled yet imperfect work in progress.
With all this in mind, I made some process-oriented, measurable goals—things that we’ll do every day to work on English. Because, regardless of any larger goals I decide on, the reality is that I have little control over the end result; that’s up to the kids. It’s the process that’s in my hands.
Research and personal experience suggest that there is no one correct approach; in the end, we are all experimenting, and we have a lot to learn from each other.