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How to make Japanese green plum ume syrup (aka 梅シロップ, mashil-jeup, 매실즙)

How to make Japanese green plum ume syrup (aka 梅シロップ, mashil-jeup, 매실즙)

When my wife and I lived in Japan we used to make Japanese green plum wine (umeshu) which I’ve detailed how to do here.  The glass jars sold for making umeshu in Japan always had instructions for making it as well as ume syrup which can be used to make a refreshing ume flavored non-alcoholic drink, top shaved ice, ice cream, make korean BBQ sauce, or numerous other uses.

I never tried ume syrup since we enjoyed umeshu so much.  But I became curious this year, in part because we now live in the U.S. and get most of our Japanese ingredients at a Korean supermarket and Koreans make and use more ume syrup (mashil-jeup 매실즙 in Korean) than the Japanese do.

It’s simple and delicious to make and there are several variations.  The only difficult part is finding ume (梅) aka green Japanese plums (even though they are more closely related to apricots.)  They are available for a VERY SHORT season for about the first 3 weeks of May in the United States (where they are grown in California and found in larger Asian grocery stores across the nation) or in June for most of Japan.  Outside of this you will almost never find them!  As in my umeshu article I’ll list some sources and locations at the end.

Japanese ume

Ingredients:
This recipe can adjusted proportionally to whatever amount you want to make.  You should use a minimum of 250 g. of ume to get usable results.  I have gotten a little under 1 ml. of syrup per 1 g. of ume.

  • Green ume (250 grams or more*)
  • Sugar (granulated or rock**) equal in weight to ume
  • Optional:  Vinegar (rice or apple cider) 1/10 ml per gram of ume (ie. 25ml per 250 g.)
  • Optional:  Shochu or vodka (~50ml. clear, flavorless alcohol for sterilization)
    (My article on umeshu talks about inexpensive Korean shochu that can be found in the U.S.)

* My experience suggests less than 250 grams of ume might inhibit the process from working smoothly
** Rock sugar is popular in Asian recipes and is discussed in my umeshu article.

Removing the stem from umeStep 1:  Prepare ume

  • Remove any ume with brown spots, bruises, or cuts to their skin
  • Gently remove any remainder the stem with a toothpick or bamboo skewer (pictured above).  Be careful not to break the skin.
  • Wash the ume in plenty of clean, cool water

Step 2:  Pack ume in sugar

  • Clean a glass jar with detergent and hot water.  Optionally you might want to wipe the inside with some shochu or vodka to disinfect.
  • Fill the jar with alternating layers of ume and sugar
    • Optional:  You can freeze the ume overnight and pack them in the sugar while frozen hard.  Freezing causes microscopic ice crystals to break the ume’s cell membranes and fibers allowing the juice and flavor to flow out more readily.  This also decreases the likelihood of fermentation in the first week if you want a sweeter syrup as opposed to a more sour fermented variant (read on for more info.)
    • Optional: In a clean bowl swish the ume around in the shochu or vodka then drain out to sterilize their outside to reduce the probability of fermentation if you want a sweeter syrup as opposed to a fermented sweet and sour syrup (see variants section below.)

Step 2:  Allow ume to sit in sugar and gently shake the jar once or twice daily

The concentration of sugar outside of the ume will trigger osmosis and all of the fluid and deliciousness in the ume will sweat out and melt the sugar to form a delicious syrup.

time lapse of ume syrup

Variant 1:  Non-fermented sweetume close-up in syrup with small bubbles

  • Sterilize the jar and ume with shochu or vodka and freeze prior to packing in sugar as suggested above.
  • Remove the ume and refrigerate the syrup after no more than 7 days for a sweet and fresh taste

Variant 2:  Non-fermented sour

  • Pour in the optional rice or apple cider vinegar after layering the ume and sugar to prevent fermentation and produce a sweet and sour syrup which should be refrigerated after no more than 7 days.

Variant 3:  Fermented

  • I’ve seen various (most often Korean), recipes which call for letting it sit for 30-60 days.  After 7 days it begins to ferment and you can see some tiny bubbles forming in in the syrup and around the ume and pressure building up in the jar.  It will smell a little off but then after a few more days it will start to take on a richer more complex fragrance and flavor.  I’m in the process of doing my first batch this way, so I can’t tell you the full results yet.The picture to the right shows some tiny bubbles that I noticed forming when I stirred it up which I assume are from a small amount of fermentation.

shriveled ume after syrup making  After your syrup is ready remove the ume and store the syrup in a clean jar in the refrigerator.  Don’t throw away the ume just yet!  The ones I froze were a tasty treat that I enjoyed eating straight!  Ones that I didn’t freeze were very hard and fiberous.  Some Koreans remove the pits and preserve them with kochujang to eat as a side dish, while others simmer them in sugar water and mash them into jam.

 

Ume truely are a magical, tasty, versitile super-food!

 

Places to find ume in the United States:

  • Hmart – a Korean grocery store chain with locations across the US where I’ve bought ume.  They are GREAT for finding Japanese stuff as well and well worth even a 1-2 hr drive to get to.
  • Lotte Plaza – a Korean grocery store chain with locations in MD, VA, and soon FL.  Like Hmart they carry a wide selection of Asian groceries and Japanese and worth a 1-2 hour drive to get to.
  • Wikipedia list of Asian supermarket chains
  • If you know of any other good Asian grocery chains with multiple locations in the US that sell ume please contact me and I’ll include it here.

-William Milberry

The Japanese Aesthetic of Wabisabi (侘寂) by William Milberry

The Japanese Aesthetic of Wabisabi (侘寂) by William Milberry

Much of William Milberry’s photography is influenced by the Japanese aesthetic sense of wabisabi (侘寂).

Wabisabi is a guiding aesthetic that can be found across all areas of Japanese culture, art, design, and even in traditional performing arts.  It’s marked by an appreciation and acceptance of imperfection and transience.  Author Richard R. Powell says “Wabisabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities:  nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”  The origins of this line of thought can be traced back to Buddhism (a dominant religion in Japan), which stresses similar concepts.  So it’s somewhat natural that people who live with a Buddhist world view would find objects that match these ideas as “beautiful.”

Common traits found in the wabisabi aesthetic are simplicity, modesty, and austerity.  In terms of manifestation of wabisabi, you see a lot of asymmetry, roughness, and a lack of complex design or pre-planning.  This aesthetic is applied by the Japanese to many things such as ceramics, paintings, photography, architecture, and even traditional music and theater.

Japanese sake flask exhibiting wabisabi aesthetic
Japanese sake flask exhibiting wabisabi aesthetic

As a westerner, I would say that many western aesthetics view things that are carefully designed, perfectly crafted or that have an eternal quality as “beautiful.”  (Perhaps this is influenced by many monotheistic western cultures’ ideas about the eternity and perfection of God  and heaven?)  Wabisabi, on the other hand, embodies an appreciation for things despite their imperfections.  Imperfections include wear acquired by time (like weathered wood or patina on metal), or artifacts leftover by the process that something was created by. Beyond just imperfection, in line with Buddhist thought, things that are transient and impermanent are also seen as especially beautiful.  Expression of this focus on transience can be seen in arts like Japanese Ikebana (flower arranging), where the beautiful arrangement will be short lived due to the nature of flowers.  Also a preference for transience can be seen in the choice of subject matter in art (short lived cherry blossoms, fleeting moments in life, etc.), and even key elements in stories and movies (particularly in period pieces such as samurai movies.)

The sake flask in the photo to the left is an example of wabisabi aesthetic.  It’s one of my personal favorite items which I found at a flea market in Fukuoka.  It is uneven and worn, yet still elegant and balanced.  I see it and appreciate it’s creation and long history rather than feel put off by it’s sunken in sides and heavily worn, uneven glaze.

Not every uneven, crooked, or imperfect thing is admired under the idea of wabisabi.  It must garner a sense of tranquility or almost spiritual thoughts.  The “defects” as it were, are often quite intentional or allowed to be there as a testament to an objects creation or history.  There is an art to imperfection.  There is an intuitive understanding and something intangible communicated in a perfectly uneven teacup made by one of the respected ceramic artists of Arita, Japan, which, is probably not present in a crooked teacup made by someone who simply doesn’t know what they are doing.  There is a deep sense of presence in dark, grainy photos taken by Moriyama Daido which probably isn’t present in a photo snapped by someone who doesn’t actually see the world in line with this aesthetic.

[slider id=’772′ name=’Japanese Photographers’]

In what ways does wabsiabi relate to Japanese photography?  At first glance the photos of many of the noted Japanese photographers like Moriyama Daido, Nobuyoshi Araki, and Shomei Tomatsu are not “beautiful” in the typical western sense I was used to.  They are not carefully composed, don’t have pinpoint focus, and are often not well exposed.  Their subjects seem to have little setup and are fleeting moments that would be impossible to go back and catch again.  Contrast this is with noted western photographers like Ansel Adams or Annie Leibovitz whose works are carefully planned, composed, focused, and executed.  While these may be arbitrary examples that illustrate my point, I think they do demonstrate the general preference for and pattern of wabisabi ideas in Japanese photography/art, and the preference for a “clean” more “carefully crafted” style of western photography/art.

Shinjuku Plus - Moriyama Daido
Shinjuku Plus – Moriyama Daido

When I lived in Japan I wanted to learn more about Japanese photographers.  I would browse photobooks (of which there are many), in the local book stores.  I was disappointed at first and thought that the Japanese had failed to master photography techniques.  Still, I wanted to buy a few books for my collection, so I bought Moriyama Daido’s book Shinuku Plus.  When I slowly looked through it, I slowly began to understand.  The photos together told a story without words, they drew you into the time and place where they were taken.  After feeling this for the first time I started to appreciate the individual images because I no longer focused on what they weren’t (clear, sharp, detailed), but I learned to focus on what they offered.  I had discovered, at least in part, the aesthetic of wabisabi.

While I enjoy a well executed photo, I feel more free to look beyond the surface now.  Japanese photographers often seem to look into their subjects and reflect what they feel more than focusing on capturing the subject to present to your eyes.  It’s a very different way of appreciating the world.

I plan on writing more articles about Japanese culture and Japanese photography.  It’s something that I have fallen in love with and think that English speakers have had limited exposure to.

by Moriyama Daido
by Moriyama Daido

Article by William Milberry.
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Hina Doll Festival

Hina Doll Festival

Right now is the Hina Matsuri or girl’s doll festival in Japan.  It’s a festival for girls and is observed by displaying a set of dolls on a stair shaped platform.   You can read more over at wikipedia.  Dolls are displayed not only in private homes, but also in many storefronts.

I bought a roll of Agfa APX film the other day.  AGFA has been out of business for years and this film is fast disappearing as the stock is bought up.  It is brilliant and beautiful film.  It’s quite expensive in Japan, costing 2x what I pay for Tri-X, but I like it and think I am going to buy the remaining rolls in the store where I found it.

This was shot on APX: