Umeboshi (pickled 'plum') article in The Japan Times
This month's Japan Times article is about umeboshi, the sour-salty pickled fruit (usually called a pickled plum, though it's actually more related to an apricot) that's practically a national symbol.
I've written quite a lot about umeboshi on these pages before of course, including how to make your own if you can get a hold of the fresh ume fruit, following my mother's instructions. This time though I've gone a bit more into my memories of this sour-salty treat growing up, as well as its symbolism. The picture you see at the top of the article is of a hinomaru bento - a bed of white rice with a single umeboshi. It looks rather like the Japanese flag, which is called the hinomaru, thus the name. The hinomaru bento has been alternately a symbol of poverty, and a symbol of wealth. During times of peace and plenty, it was a symbol of poverty; if you could only afford to eat rice and not much else, you could somehow get the rice down with the help of an umeboshi. Even looking at an umeboshi could help, since it got the salivatory glands going. But in times of war, rice itself became a precious commodity. All domestic rice production was reserved for feeding the army during WWII, and while the rich and influential could get their hands on some, regular people had to make do with other grains like millet. After the war, rice was imported from Southeast Asia to make up for deficiencies, but people hated the gaimai (rice from 'outside') that was so different from the type of rice they were used to. (See Looking At Rice.) So a hinomaru bento with 'real' japonica rice was a coveted luxury.
Nowadays of course we live in times of plenty, and that extends to the umeboshi. Not that many people make their own umeboshi anymore in Japan - and why should they? The variety of umeboshi you can get just about anywhere is staggering. This is the umeboshi display at a typical Tokyo department store food hall.
And here are various kinds of umeboshi on sale. Some are low-salt, some don't use any red shiso (perilla), some are marinated in dashi stock, and so on.
Prices vary wildly too. You can get a packet of serviceable umeboshi for 100 yen, at the 100 yen shops like Daiso or Lawson 100, or ultra-gourmet varieties that cost 500 to 700 yen and more per umeboshi.
I know, I have not been updating here much again. I don't know what to say, except that I've not been feeling too well. My energy is way low, my back keeps hurting, and now my eyes are bothering me a lot. The last one really cuts down on my online time. All this is attributed to the cancer treatments and so on, and is supposed to get better with time. I certainly hope so. T_T