Starlit Dreams of Childhood: Ayako Iino preserves Japanese foodways with Yumé Boshi

A woman stands in her booth behind a table that hold her ume products.

Ayako Iino’s Yumé Boshi. photos by Alec Yoshio MacDonald

Ayako Iino has a special connection with umeboshi.

“It’s very close to my heart,” she said of the intensely sour pickled plum that has been enjoyed in Japan for centuries. “My mom used to make it from a tree that we had in the yard,” she explained, so umeboshi “is very dear to me from my childhood.”

Growing up in the suburbs of Nagoya, Iino had the chance to observe her mother’s umeboshi preparation every year, but “over time I developed my own method, so what I do now is probably very different from what my mom used to do.”

In addition to research from “a lot of cookbooks,” her method incorporates techniques she learned from elder farmers while living in rural Chiba prefecture as a young adult. However, the most notable difference between her mother’s efforts and her own has less to do with technique and more to do with scale: Iino produces umeboshi commercially, for sale through her business Yumé Boshi.

She launched the venture in 2013, branding it with a somewhat celestial pun (the name derives from the Japanese words yume, meaning dream, and hoshi, meaning star). Back then she was working as a private chef for a Bay Area family, having first arrived to America in 1999 to study culinary arts at San Francisco City College before gaining experience in the kitchens of high-end eateries Chez Panisse, Oliveto, and Boulette’s Larder.

In her early days as an entrepreneur, she focused primarily on umeboshi, but then started experimenting with its two main ingredients — ume and red shiso — to develop jams, furikake, tea, syrups, vinegars, and shrubs (syrup-vinegar hybrids often used in cocktails). Now she handcrafts a full line of products in small batches out of a facility in Richmond, Calif. These products can be found at select local retailers and a handful of locations across the country, or purchased through the Yumé Boshi Website.

For those who prefer a more personal touch, umeboshi enthusiasts can meet Iino on Tuesdays at the South Berkeley Farmers Market, where she established a booth earlier this year.

“It’s been really wonderful, because I get to directly talk to the customers who buy from me,” she said, noting how this often “grows into very interesting conversation.”

She feels rewarded and excited to learn the ways people have used her products, from the unexpected (smearing umeboshi over buttered corn on the cob) to the poignant (serving syrup-based cocktails as the signature drink at a wedding). And for others who have never encountered the world of umeboshi, she’s happy to provide them an introduction, complete with tasting samples. Some people can’t handle the mouth-puckering flavor of pickled plum, but something milder, like a syrup, might captivate their palate instead.

Various jars of Yumé Boshi products are on a table.
DREAMS COME TRUE ­— Ayako Iino’s Yumé Boshi offerings include Umeboshi Plum, Ume Plum Syrup, Ume Plum Jam, Yukari – shiso flakes, Shichimi Togarashi – Japanese Seven Spice, shrubs and more. photos by Alec Yoshio MacDonald

If a visitor to her booth mentions having a backyard fruit tree, Iino delights in explaining preservation techniques to try at home. “That’s fun for me,” she declared.

As for her own supply of fruit, she said that “I’m very, very particular about what kind of ume I get.”

This raw material is harder to find in America than in Japan, where ume grows widely on the tree species prunus mume (which happens to have a genetic profile closer to apricots than plums). Iino spent years pinning down a local source for her business. She declined to share specific details about the farmers who furnish the fruit, but revealed that her ume comes from the Central Valley near the town of Winters.

The fact that her supply originates from one of the most agriculturally rich places on earth seems to make her proud. She said that the Golden State’s golden rays imbue her product with a unique quality, asserting, “It’s very different than umeboshi that comes from Japan because the California sun is very, very special. So the fruit’s sweetness is there — if you are looking for it.” And even if you can’t detect that subtle undercurrent below a surge of salty sourness, the nostalgia of a Japanese childhood adds plenty of sweetness to Iino’s delicious Yumé Boshi offerings.

To learn more about Yumé Boshi, visit https://yumeboshiplum.com.

YUMÉ BOSHI RECIPES

To give customers ideas and inspiration for how to use her artisanal food products, Ayako Iino offers recipes at yumeboshiplum.com or on printed cards available from the Yumé Boshi booth at the South Berkeley Farmers Market. Here are just a few of those recipes.

Kale & Umeboshi Salad
Remove stems from dinosaur kale, slice thinly, and place in a bowl.
Add a whole umeboshi and massage into the kale by hand until the umeboshi is mashed and the kale is soft. Remove the pit.
Add olive oil and a splash of lemon juice.
Mix well and, if desired, add shoyu.

Simple Ume Plum Cocktail
1 part ume plum syrup
3 parts tequila
A squeeze of lemon or lime juice

Red Shiso Mojito
1 ounce red shiso shrub
2.5 ounces white rum
0.5 ounce lime juice
3 lime slices
Mint
Soda water

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