Umeboshi cocktails prove that salt’s not just for icy roads

Illustration for article titled Umeboshi cocktails prove that salt’s not just for icy roads
Photo: jyugem (iStock), Illustration: Allison Corr
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It’s the dead of winter, and most of the fun holidays are behind us—but there’s still months of cold and slush to get through. So we’d like to welcome you to Tropical Staycation, a week of island-inspired recipes and other stories that will transport you to much warmer, sunnier places. Just don’t look out the window while reading.

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I love salt. I love it on chocolate. I love it on butterscotch pudding. I love it on watermelon. I must have been a deer in a former life, looking for salt licks. Or one of those parrots that nibble salty clay cliffs in the jungle. I’m good either way.

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The salt lick of my present human life is usually the margarita. Some switch in my brain was flipped years ago and that drink became pretty much the only cocktail I enjoyed. Until I met a salty plum slush at a Japanese restaurant, that is.

Salty plum is one way to refer to umeboshi, a type of preserved Japanese plum. I use the term “plum” rather loosely here, as the ume fruit in Japan is akin to a cross between plum and apricot. The umes spend up to a year entombed in salt and are often pickled in vinegar and shiso leaves. The end result is a puckeringly tart and salty treat.

Once I had one, I wanted more. And I wanted to drink them.

I quickly learned all “salty plums” are not created equal. I bought several cans of things labeled “salty plums,” and they were all wrong. Some were definitely just prune bits. Some were outright peaches (imposters!) and some were candied miniature golden plums that were spiced like jelly beans and were mostly pit. Adorable, but infuriating. I finally found the soft, plump umeboshi I wanted at Whole Foods, which carries the Eden brand. Experimentation could begin.

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You can make a perfectly satisfying drink with just one salty plum, some sugar, and some club soda, a nod to both Thai and Vietnamese sodas that do that same. But I wanted new ingredients that paired well with the umeboshi’s pronounced salty and sour flavors and were tropical enough to feel like a midwinter vacation drink without a huge hit of alcohol. Tequila plays nice with many sour and fruity friends. And shy little sake loves delicate melon flavors. To balance the salt, I used lemongrass syrup, which is the barest of efforts to make.

These are umeboshi’s new friends: a rosy-cheeked lemongrass margarita, served on the rocks or blended to a pale, pleasing violet (enjoy the ridiculous name I picked for it below); sweet cantaloupe blended until frothy with floral sake; and a mocktail with velvety lychee nectar, brightened with lime.

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So if you’re sad you’re not currently on vacation in the Pacific, or even, for that matter, at a Japanese restaurant, don’t despair. Salt is not just for icy roads. Get out your cocktail shaker, and make any of the slurpable salty plum creations below.


Illustration for article titled Umeboshi cocktails prove that salt’s not just for icy roads
Photo: A.E. Dwyer, Chainarong Prasertthai (iStock)
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Profesora Plum, a.k.a Salty Plum Lemongrass Margarita

Makes 1 drink

  • 1 umeboshi, rinsed
  • 1 Tbsp. lemongrass syrup (recipe follows)
  • 1 oz. lime juice
  • 1 oz. tequila
  • A good squeeze of orange juice.
  • Ice

Muddle umeboshi and lemongrass syrup in the bottom of your glass. After a few bashes, the pit should come free of the plum. I left it in because there is a good amount of plum flesh clinging to it, but feel free to remove it, especially if you plan on tossing this drink back recklessly, without checking for that pit. Once muddling is complete, add a handful of ice to your glass.

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In a cocktail shaker, add tequila, lime, orange juice, and ice. Shake vigorously for 20-30 seconds. Strain into your glass. The plum mixture will stay at the bottom for a beautiful two-tone presentation, but I encourage you to stir it upon drinking.

Blended margarita option: Place all ingredients (pit the plum) in a blender with 1 cup of ice. Blend until smooth. Pour into a glass and garnish with a lime wheel, or a stalk of trimmed lemongrass as a swizzle stick. For extra snazziness, rim the glass with black salt before pouring the drink in.

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Lemongrass Syrup

Makes about 1 cup

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 stalk of lemongrass, thinly sliced.

Add ingredients into a pan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15-18 minutes until fragrant and all sugar is dissolved. Strain and cool before adding to drinks.

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Illustration for article titled Umeboshi cocktails prove that salt’s not just for icy roads
Photo: A.E. Dwyer, phatthanit_r (iStock)
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Sweet and Salty Cantaloupe Blossom

Makes 1 drink

  • 1 cup sweet cantaloupe chunks
  • 2 oz. sake
  • 1 umeboshi, rinsed
  • 1/2 to 1 Tbsp. lemongrass syrup, depending on your sweetness preference
  • A squeeze of fresh orange juice
  • Ice

Muddle sake and umeboshi in the bottom of your glass. Add cantaloupe, lemongrass syrup, orange juice, and a half cup of ice to your blender, and blend until pale orange and frothy. Pour into your glass, stir, and garnish with a sliced cantaloupe flower or orange wheel.

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Illustration for article titled Umeboshi cocktails prove that salt’s not just for icy roads
Photo: A.E. Dwyer, Studio Doros (iStock)
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Salty Lychee Spritz

Makes 1 drink

  • 1 umeboshi, rinsed
  • 1 Tbsp. of sugar, more or less, to taste (or use 1 Tbsp of Lemongrass Syrup)
  • Sparkling water, seltzer, or lemon-lime soda
  • 2 Tbsp. lychee nectar
  • Squeeze of fresh lime juice
  • Crushed ice

Muddle umeboshi with sugar in your glass, until the sugar is coated and purple. Remove pit. Add lychee nectar and a generous squeeze of lime juice. Top with ice, and add 2 to 4 oz. of sparkling water or soda, depending on the size of your glass.

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Note: start with less sugar, especially if you’re using a sweetened soda, rather than sparkling water. The jammy flavor of the plum gets stronger as it sits.

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DISCUSSION

tsuyoikuma

I hear umeboshi are a great comfort if you and your baby sister are slowly starving to death and your city is being firebombed during the death knell of Japanese imperialism. Sakuma water is also supposed to be a great mixer!

(Please see “Grave of the Fireflies” if you would like PTSD from a movie)