Get to know umeboshi paste: "parmesan cheese for vegans"

Kevin Farrell

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It’s easier than ever to commit to a fully vegan diet, thanks to innovations hitting the market like plant-based steaks that bleed, and flaked, high-protein, high-fiber lupin. But whether it’s an ethical interest in abstaining from animal proteins or an interest in the health benefits of an herbivorous diet that starts you down the vegan path, it’s a diversity of foods and flavors that make sustaining the switch possible.


Vegans may know all about the versatile virtues of soy and the infinite utility of black beans, but it’s the more obscure ingredients that really elevate the experience of being animal-free. One such ingredient that every vegan ought to make room for in their kitchen is umeboshi paste.

Ume...boshi? Am I pronouncing it right?

Oo-may-bo-she. You’re doing great.

OK, so what is it?

Umeboshi is perhaps more commonly known as pickled Japanese plum, but in truth it’s more akin to a type of apricot. Ume – the fruit – are thought to have originated in northern China, where records dating back 2,000 years document its proliferation. About 1,500 years ago, the first Ume arrived in Japan, both as new groves of trees that were cultivated, and as a medicine called Woomei.

Woomei gained a foothold in ancient samurai culture, with warriors consuming the pickled plums to combat everything from exhaustion to nausea. Umeboshi were credited with such amazing medicinal abilities, that they were thought to be capable of fending of societal plagues. Even just looking at an umeboshi was thought to have deep, restorative powers, according to a 17th century samurai guide. Today, umeboshi is still widely consumed, enjoying a third act as a modern hangover cure.

So the next big vegan food is a samurai hangover cure?

Sort of! It’s important to remember that ume is the fruit, umeboshi is the fermented and aged product, and umeboshi paste is the buzzy vegan “it food.” After a rigorous process that includes salting, drying, pickling, and aging the fruit for as many as 100 years, umeboshi paste is created by then mashing the fruit into a pulpy liquid. You can buy it by the tube or jar, or just make your own by tossing a handful of pitted umeboshi into a food processor for a few quick pulses.

What does it taste like?

As you might expect from a product that undergoes a strenuous salting and pickling process, umeboshi paste is both salty and sour. But even more so, it is described as astringent. Umeboshi paste causes the mucous membranes in your mouth to constrict, momentarily cutting off saliva production, eliciting a dry sensation across your taste buds. If that isn’t selling it for you, consider that umeboshi paste is often compared to parmesan cheese, anchovies or some types of fish sauce. The flavor is both bright and somehow woody. You can taste the age, but the heavy amounts of citric acid present simultaneously light your brain up with the sensations of brightness and freshness.

I’m cautiously optimistic. What can I use it in?

Tap umeboshi paste in as a substitution for recipes calling for miso, or briny capers. Add a teaspoon of it to pestos, curries, tapenades, and puttanesca. Smear it on flatbreads or crostinis. Or toss steamed vegetables in a spoonful of umeboshi paste instead of boring old lemon juice and olive oil. It’s important to remember that this is a condiment we’re talking about here, not an entree.

OK, I’m sold. Anything else I need to know?

Remember what I said about umeboshi’s medicinal roots? Scientists and doctors even today remain enamored with the food. Separate medical studies have linked umeboshi to cavity prevention, and even suppressing the growth of cancerous cells. No matter what you’re cooking up, you can feel good about it when there’s a dash of umeboshi paste hitting the plate.


Kevin Farrell

About Kevin Farrell

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