In Japan, the equivalent of the apple a day that keeps the doctor away is the pickled umeboshi, and these small, pickled plums are highly valued for their culinary and medicinal qualities.
Pickled umeboshi are made from the fruit of Prunus mume—actually an Asian species of apricot, but more commonly referred to as a plum.
The fruits are picked at the end of June when they are green and unripe and at the peak of their acidity. The plums are then pickled with salt and the red leaves of a medicinal herb called shiso or beefsteak. They are then aged for a year or longer, and the pickled umeboshi come out small and shriveled with a reddish hue from the shiso leaves. They taste salty and sour due their high citric acid content.
Umeboshi is a traditional food that is believed to have originated in China more than 2,000 years ago. The Japanese have been eating umeboshi plums for centuries, with an early reference to these pickled plums dating back to the 10th century. They were traditionally eaten by everyone from the daimyo to sumo wrestlers, and by samurai who ate them to ward off battle fatigue.
They are often used in dressings, dips, and sauces to enhance flavor in various dishes and to whet one’s appetite.
The pickled plums have powerful healing properties and help balance pH and strengthen the body.
Umeboshi are beneficial for many different conditions, including various gastrointestinal troubles, bad breath, constipation, diarrhea, indigestion, lack of appetite, nausea, and vomiting.
They are great for easing many different kinds of fluid discharge—such as a runny nose, excessive urination or perspiration, and heavy menstrual periods.
One of the most alkalinizing foods, umeboshi helps restore the body’s acid-alkaline balance. Our blood and other body fluids are naturally slightly alkaline when we are healthy. Illness and infections thrive when the body condition becomes too acidic. Thus the plums also make a good natural home remedy for bacterial and viral infections.
A friend of mine once alleviated a mild asthma attack while on holiday in Europe by popping an umeboshi into his mouth. He said that he was able to breathe again within 15 minutes.
He did this because he understood the yin and yang nature of foods. He had had too much ice cream, which is very yin (cold and sweet), and this upset his body, and so he countered the situation by eating a salty, yang umeboshi plum.
Another unusual story about umeboshi is how it worked as a mosquito repellent. A macrobiotic teacher from the European Kushi Institute tells the story about how during a visit to Africa, he slept with the windows wide open at night—but with an umeboshi in his mouth. He said that because of this, the mosquitoes did not bother him at all.
Cautions for Buying
When you buy umeboshi, read the label carefully because many commercially made umeboshi are laced with sugar, MSG, preservatives, and other unnatural ingredients. While these commercial plums may taste nice and sweet, their healing properties are not a strong as the umeboshi made using traditional methods.
When using umeboshi as a home remedy, it is best to use the whole plums, and preferably organic umeboshi, which you can buy online or from health food stores.
This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Next week Part 2: Ten Ways to Use Umeboshi.
Dr. Margaret Trey has a doctorate in counseling from The University of South Australia. Also trained in oriental medicine, shiatsu, and macrobiotics, Dr. Trey is a wellness advocate, counselor, and writer. Now based in New York, Dr. Trey continues researching on the effects of meditation.