|Umeshu with Shi-Shi-Mai|
A confession: I don't drink much. I'm not in any way a connoisseur of any kind of alcohol, so you may take this post with whatever size grain of salt you think is necessary ;-))
I'm no teetotaler, though--I like a glass of wine every now and again. I've never been much of a beer-drinker, however, in spite of the fact that I majored in German in college, lived in Hamburg for a year, and was a German teacher. The Rhine wines, on the other hand (especially Spaetlese)... And now I live in Japan, married to a Japanese guy--and I must confess (while I'm at it), that I have never been fond of Sake. Dreadful, I know. But my husband likes it even less than I do, so it's nothing to do with being a foreigner, at any rate. He, in fact, drinks even less than I do (if that's possible)--he turns pink like the Quick Change Tree after half a glass of beer or four sips of wine (a fact which I found irresistible on our third date...).
But I hadn't been here too long before I discovered something I *did* like: 梅酒, ume shu. Plum wine (or, liqueur, if you prefer). Best. Stuff. Ever. If you like sweet desert wines, that is, although I think Umeshu is somewhat lighter than port or sherry.
I said "Plum" wine--but while they look mostly like a plum, Ume are really more closely related to the apricot, and thus are variously referred to in English as "Japanese apricot" or "Chinese plum". It is, for some unaccountable reason, my favorite of the flowering trees. Yes, I love the plum blossoms even more than the cherry blossoms. The photo above was taken last year--I'm waiting for this year's blooms...about the beginning of February usually (though unusually warm weather can cause an earlier flowering).
The fruit appears and starts to ripen in June, just as the rainy season starts. This is so predictable, that Chinese and Japanese use the same Kanji for "rainy season"--梅雨.... "tsuyuu" in Japanese--literally "plum rain". Summer before last I was out with the kids catching crawdads, and fell into conversation with some older people who were doing some volunteer work cutting the tall grass near the pond we were fishing in (the one up the road where I saw the Intermediate Egret). Somehow the conversation turned to Ume and how to make Umeshu--I mentioned that I was planning to try my hand at it. Upon hearing that, the very kind O-Baasan of the group pulled out a plastic grocery bag and put a kilo of plums from her own bag into it and handed it to me. Here is the recipe she gave me:
1 kilo green Ume
600g -- 1 kilo rock sugar ("Koori satou"= "ice sugar")
1.8 litres white liquor (or shochu, which may be the same thing)
1) Wash the plums gently in cool water, drain.
2) Remove the stems with a toothpick and pat dry with a kitchen towel.
3) Layer the sugar and plums in a large glass, seal-able container (the one in the photo above is 4 litres) --sugar, plums, sugar, plums--until both are used up (if you bought a whole kilo of sugar, you don't have to use it *all* up unless you like yours quite sweet).
4) Pour the white liquor in.
5) Seal and store for at least three months in a cool dry place. Pick up the jar and gently swish it around once a week or so, to keep things mixed up well. Stick a label on as to when you put it up, if you're forgetful like me.
That's it --enjoy! This is good stuff. Mine came out very strong, so I cut it with water or seltzer and put *lots* of ice in it. Very cold Umeshu with lots of ice on a sweltering day is not to be missed--it's very refreshing. In addition to "Ume-Rokku" (on the rocks), you can mix it and make Ume Sour, or Ume Tonic, or Ume Soda (my favorite!), or heat it and drink it warm like Gluhwein after a bath on a cold night. Both cold and hot Umeshu are popular drinks at Onsen (hot spring resorts). Even the stuff cold in cans out of the vending machines at onsen tastes pretty nice after a soak. (Which reminds me: don't let me forget to tell you about The Vending Machines of Japan sometime...)
You can make it yourself, but of course you don't have to--there are any number of commercial brands available, the best known of which is probably Choya. You can get Choya in the big, tall, glass bottle with some plums in the bottom, or in a carton, and recently in smallish cans, too. I think they all taste fine--here's the commercial for their new can version of さらり と した 梅酒 (sarari to shita umeshu--that's what they're singing in the jingle. Be careful--I get that jingle stuck in my head constantly):
Note: did you see how the girl who was working hard painting got annoyed at her friend who was relaxing on the roof drinking umeshu? See how she puffed out her cheeks? That means "I'm mad"--that's why I sometimes write "poochy cheeks" in parentheses in posts or comments. It means I'm mad or frustrated about something. There are any number of Japanese gestures that are almost impossible to stop doing once you've picked them up... (but that's a post for another time...)
And the plums after you've drunk all the wine? Mottainai! (Don't waste) 200g of pitted plum meat, 40 g of sugar (20% of the amount of plum you're using) and 1 lemon's worth of juice boiled gently with 2-3 cups of water will make you a nice Plum Jam. Oishiiiii....
p.s.--if you don't drink or like alcohol, you can make Ume Syrup using 500g of washed green plums and 300-500 of regular or light brown sugar layered in a glass jar with a lock down lid that vacuum seals. This only takes 4 or 5 days (swish it around once a day)--keep the syrup in the fridge and use it up within about 2 months. Mix it with water or seltzer or tonic--just like the Ume Shu. Enjoy!
p.p.s.--the title of this post is a word play on "Ume" (plum) and the slang way to say "umai" (good/delicious), which comes out "umeeeeee" (final "ay" as in "day" sound drawn out for as long as you think necessary to convey the proper level of deliciousness). You wanted to know that, right?