Friday, June 20, 2014

27. 梅子黄: "Plums Turn Golden"

(BGM: "Chalu Chalu Chalu" from the Sri Ramadasu STK)

Ume plums ripening in the Yamagata rains.
 Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing
 仲夏, Chuuka: "Mid-summer"
Season No. 9: 芒種, Boushu: 
"Grain In Ear"

Rice plants taking hold in Tamari, Hiroshima.

Climate No. 27: 梅子黄 
Ume No Mi Kibamu
"Plums Turn Golden"
(June 16 -June 20) 

Golden plums nearly falling off the branches in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi.
We've seen how the white, demure blossoms of ume plum trees (Prunus mume) fill the early spring air with their sweet, uplifting fragrance. The greening of the hillsides urges little emerald orbs to swell up from where blossoms once graced the boughs. With the onset of the rainy season, the slightly fuzzy apricot-sized ume fruits drop and splat onto the ground, providing food for wasps, butterflies and other insects.

Ume plums might seem deliciously tempting just as they are. But to bite into one would be folly; the ume plum is poisonous to humans and must be pickled in a salt brine (梅干し umeboshi), packed with sugar to make ume juice or preserved in alcohol (梅酒 umeshu) to be removed of its toxins. Fortunately, Japanese cuisine provides many opportunities to savor the succulent sourness of ume plums.


My host mother's homemade umeboshi (Fukutsu, Fukuoka).
Pickled plums (umeboshi) come in two major types: dried and moist. Dried umeboshi packed in salt tend to be painfully tart to the average tongue yet eaten casually by the Japanese like candy. (They're actually found in the candy aisle at the supermarket!) They are dreadfully salty and quite the acquired taste. Folks with hypertension or high blood pressure would do well to avoid them. 

Soggy, mushy umeboshi (found refrigerated in the tsukemono section of any supermarket) are usually sweeter than their dried counterpart, with more fruit flavor and less shock value. They generally make their way into meals as a side condiment, adding a spark of contrast to an otherwise bland bowl of rice or as a topping for noodles. For many people, just a couple umeboshi, a humble bowl of rice and a small serving of miso soup constitutes an entire breakfast. In Japan, the taste of umeboshi seems to change with each household in much the same way that no two kimchees are alike in neighboring Korea. Pickling techniques, equipment, ingredients and recipes are often heavily-guarded family secrets, passed on from generation to generation.

Umeboshi  have their rightful place in Japanese traditional medicine, still popular with the elderly in tonics and tisanes as a remedy for heat exhaustion and as a way to shorten the lifespan of colds. Apparently, all one needs to do to boost their immune system is to drop the flesh of a moist umeboshi into a teacup and cover with boiling water, allowing it to steep for several minutes. Drinking two cups a day of this concoction for several months is said to reduce profuse sweating, increase circulation, ease poor digestion, even aid weight loss (proof pending, of course).


Homemade umeshu plum wine (Ushiku, Ibaraki).
This time of year, the average Japanese supermarket sports a few tables in the produce section loaded with pickling jars and thermoses especially designed for the making of homemade umeshu and non-alcoholic ume juice. (The ripe fruit is best preserved while in season). Both of these soothing concoctions can be enjoyed year-round on the rocks for a refreshing summer drink or blended with boiling water as a warming winter toddy. (I've also discovered that both umeshu and ume juice blend perfectly with orange juice!) Not limited to straight consumption, ume beverages also add a sweet, mellow tang to sauces and marinades. Not a bad repertoire for a poisonous fruit!

 Taste Of The Season: メロン, Meron, Melon

   In morning dew
    Mud-fresh."   -Matsuo Basho

Assorted melons and other fruit at Ameyayokocho Market in Ueno, Tokyo.
The first drink I ever had in Japan was a musk melon cream soda float at Narita Int'l Airport. It was a muggy, nerve-wracking September day and nothing could've cooled me down more effectively short of tying myself to the plane tail and trying to catch the breezes that way! Neon green and sickly sweet, the soda quickly doused the raging furnace under my skin. I was never a melon fan until I experienced that flavor in such a fizzy, creamy context.

Free blood-red watermelon plucked fresh from the fields of Ohmi Hachiman, Shiga.
Japan's nutrient-dense volcanic soil and humid summer climate ensure the perfect conditions for growing melons of all sorts, from honeydew and canteloupe to musk and watermelon.

My Hokkaido host father finishing off a slice of world-famous Yubari melon.
Over recent decades, agricultural scientists and farmers have genetically engineered various species of these fleshy cucurbits to create strange shapes, colors and textures as unique selling points -some of their inventions costing upwards of hundreds of dollars.

An honest-to-goodness Densuke watermelon, costing over 300$ USD (Otaru, Hokkaido).
We don't know anyone who would willingly pay that kind of price for a piece of impermanent fruit. And certainly, nobody we know would admit it if they did. (I mean, what if the thing was over-ripe? Find out how not to make that mistake here). We do, however, seem to have great luck living near people who have more melons in their garden than they can give away. We often get them for free! Back in Shiga, I even got a whole one for my birthday!

A health-conscious alternative to birthday cake! (Hikone, Shiga)
Flower Of The Season: 梅雨草, Tsuyukusa, Spiderplant


Spiderplant blooms in a farmer's front yard (Tone, Ibaraki).
The blossoms of the spiderplant always remind me of the worms from the planet Dune. But I still think their peculiar triangular ultraviolet blossoms make them the perfect symbol of the rainy season in Japan -not for looks, but for their behavior: These flowers actually open on rainy and cloudy days! How cool is that?

Spiderplant and bumble bee (Hiroshima).
Copyright 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.

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