Plums are a stone fruit that come in a range of sizes, shapes, colors, textures, and flavors. They can be purple, red, or yellow. They can be elongated ovals, rotund globes, soft and sweet, or firm and tart. Asian plums have particular qualities that stand out, and these unique traits make them a fan favorite in the culinary arts and in the world of botany. The gorgeous plum tree in your neighborhood just may be an Asian-European hybrid plum!
The Humble Plum
Although the blossoming cherry (sakura) is one of the core symbols of beauty in Japan, the blossoming plum (ume) is a very close second. The plum tree is first in several ways, and it arguably should get a lot more love! It leads the way in ushering in spring in Japan because it blooms in February or March, whereas the cherry tree blooms in March or April.
Other subtle differences between the plum and cherry are that the Japanese plum tree has a more fragrant smell than the cherry. The plum petal is more rounded, while the cherry petal has a little notch in it. Both the cherry and the plum usually have light pink, lavender, or white petals, but plum blossoms can also be dark pink or red. Last, cherry bark has small horizontal lines whereas the plum’s bark doesn’t.
Japanese plums and Chinese plums can both be traced back to China. The Asian plum we have come to know as Japanese plums first grew along the Yangtze River in southern China. They are actually related more closely to apricots than to European varieties of plums. Plums were introduced to Japan and other Asian countries in the 1700s and quickly took off.
When Japanese ume plums (Prunus salicina) made it to the United States in the 1800s, people were delighted at the new variety. They are round with yellow or reddish skin and flesh, and they are naturally sweet and juicy. Americans were used to American plums (Prunus Americana) that were small, wild plums native to the country. Americans much preferred European plums (Prunus domestica), such as Italian prunes, which are oval, purple, sweet, and dense. Although Japanese plums, such as Satsuma plums, were more flavorful and juicier, they had one problem. They are not self-fertile: they need a mate to pollinate.
Plant breeders soon figured out how to cross Asian plums with European and American plums to create the best of both worlds. Asian-American hybrids such as the Toka plum are firmer than Asian plums typically are, but more succulent than European and American plums typically are. Also, most hybrids benefit from cross pollination but, in a pinch, can produce little baby plum fruit without a mate.
Plum Foods and Snacks
When Asian plums are first picked, they can be quite sour. This is why, instead of eating them fresh from the tree, they are often used to make things like pickles, sauces, teas, and wine. No matter how you consume them, plums are packed full of healthy nutrients and immune-boosting properties. Here are some ways to enjoy plums in your culinary adventures.
Plum sauce, called syun mui zoeng in Cantonese (蘇梅醬), is a condiment that is frequently used in Chinese cooking. The sauce is made with plum, vinegar, ginger, chili pepper, sugar, and salt, which makes it both sweet and tart. It is often used as a dipping sauce for egg rolls or as a marinade for meats like roasted duck.
Umeboshi (梅干) are salted and pickled plums. The umeboshi plum has roots going back 3000 years to China, where it was considered medicinal. Samurai warriors in Japan would nibble on umeboshi plums to revitalize themselves after a long day of battle. A common Japanese snack is to stick a pitted pickled plum in the center of a rice ball, or onigiri. The tangy, salty umeboshi adds a zing to the otherwise neutral-tasting rice.
Besides onigiri, another great way to experience the tart and salty pickled plum with rice is in Ochazuke Rice Seasoning: Ume Sour Plum. Ochazuke is a mixture of dried bits of food sprinkled over rice with hot green tea poured on top. Preserved plums, nori, rice cracker bits, and green tea all mingle together to add a delicate yet complex and flavorful topping on a piping bowl of rice.
Umeshu (梅酒)is Japanese plum wine. Umeshu plums are always green, unripe plums, to which sugar and distilled spirits are added. An alcohol-free alternative is Kimino Sparkling Water: Ume Japanese Plum. This canned drink is made of sparkling water and real plums grown in Wakayama prefecture. It’s a healthy, zesty, and refreshing low-calorie alternative to alcoholic beverages or soft drinks.
You can find many plummy products—as well as many other Asian foods—on Bokksu, the premier online Asian grocery store.