The mountains and hillsides of Japan are blanketed with some of the world’s finest woodlands and forests; proud, scaly, pointed hinoki trees; beautifully domed, ruddy-leafed maples; giant, venerated sugi cedars dating back thousands of years and my favourite, the gnarled ume trees, with their blackened fingers reaching ever skywards. Nearly always overshadowed by their relative the cherry, the fruit of these wild plum trees (a hard, astringent, mouth puckeringly sour, green apricot) have found their way into Japanese cuisine via two main avenues- as umeboshi, salt-pickled plums coloured with red shiso leaves and normally eaten on a bowl of rice for a invigorating breakfast, or used to flavour the perennially enjoyed liqueur umeshu. Locals scour the countryside looking for these wild plums every year so they can top up their supply of the fruity spirit, families pass down their secret recipes on their deathbeds, and many a Japanese drama has been based upon the bitter-sweet moment that the last drops of a deceased loved one’s plum wine passes over your lips, never to be enjoyed again.
Replicating umeshu outside of Japan can be achieved via a well stocked oriental supermarket in early to mid summer when the ume plums are in season. Doing so creates a delicious drink, but misses out on the connection with nature that one would attain by foraging for the fruits yourself; fortunately, an equally fragrant and acerbic but darker hued plum can be found in hedgerows and fields all across the UK- the sloe. This bluish black, marble-sized treasure has been used for decades to flavour and colour gin, making it the perfect candidate for adding to shochu- Japan’s clear alcohol of choice- along with some rock sugar and a little patience to create a hybrid liqueur celebrating both the spirit of the Japanese classic and the abundant autumnal harvest of an often ignored British fruit.
Rock sugar is traditionally used when making umeshu as the crystals dissolve more slowly than granulated sugar, giving the alcohol plenty of time to extract the scent and flavour from the plums resulting in a fruitier finished product. If you can’t get your hands on rock sugar (or ‘candy’ as it’s often labelled in Chinese supermarkets) then you can use granulated sugar instead, but only add it to the liqueur after it has had a month or two of steeping with the fruit to keep the flavours properly balanced.
At the foundation of nearly all Japanese food is a handful of key flavours and ingredients; salty fermented soy products such as miso and soy sauce; sweet mirin and aromatic sake rice wines; and the underlying essence of the sea- a delicate, smoky, ocean scented stock called dashi. At its most basic and purest form, dashi is simply dried kombu seaweed, rehydrated and steeped in water until it releases all of its delicious, rich minerals creating a savoury broth to boost the taste of any dish. More complicated versions of the liquor add sawdust-like smoked bonito flakes, small dried fish such as sardines or anchovies and maybe even a handful of woody, earthy tasting shiitake mushrooms to supercharge the umami qualities of this liquid flavour bomb.
Umami- the fifth taste after sweet, salty, bitter and sour- is a loan word from Japanese, literally meaning ‘delicious flavour’ and it describes the brothy, savoury, meaty taste identified when the tongue’s receptors react to the presence of glutamic acid in food. Dried kombu is particularly rich in glutamic acid (so much so that you can even see crystals of it on the seaweed’s surface, looking like a white powdery bloom) and the savoury aspects become even stronger when combined with bonito flakes thanks to the synergistic relationship between glutamates and the inosinates present in nearly all dried seafood. Only explained by science in the early twentieth century, the cooks of Japan have known about the mouth watering qualities of combining these flavours together for centuries, using dashi in everything from pancake batters to soups and stews.
Nowadays there are plenty of very good instant dashi powders and granules easily available in supermarkets- we use them regularly when we don’t want the dashi itself to be an overly prominent flavour in the finished dish- but nothing really compares to making your own, adjusting the seasoning to your liking, adding more or less of one ingredient or another, or perhaps even adding a completely new ingredient (the addition of smoked bacon or air dried ham creates an unconventional but intoxicatingly heady dashi that goes brilliantly with darker, red miso soups). We’re certain that after you’ve tried making your own dashi, you’ll want to always keep a packet of kombu and katsuobushi handy in your store cupboard at all times.
PS. Whatever you do, don’t throw away the used flavourings after you’ve strained your broth, make them into a delicious seasoning for your rice by following our recipe for homemade furikake or cook them up again to make niban dashi.