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.
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.
Step 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.
Variant 1: Non-fermented sweet
- 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.
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.