Lebanon finds a natural treasure ripe for export in wild plums

3. wild plums and Shiso leaves
Wild plums and shiso leaves grown in Lebanon. (Photos: Handouts from Hanan Bou Najm)
BEIRUT — Umeboshi, pickled or fermented Japanese plums, are a rare and expensive delicacy with macrobiotic health benefits that are now being cultivated, produced, and packaged in preparation for export in Lebanon. One local company is taking wild plums that grow on Mount Lebanon at elevations in excess of 1,400 meters above sea level and creating the Japanese dish.اضافة اعلان

Hanan Bou Najm, a macrobiotic nutritionist and founder of Balsam Jbalna, the company that makes Lebanese umeboshi, started her business in response to a shortage of Japanese umeboshi. The delicacy is an essential part of the macrobiotic dietary lifestyle. “Due to the pandemic we couldn’t find umeboshi from Japan locally,” Bou Najm said, adding that when she asked around in villages and among the farming community, she found that Lebanon had a very well-kept secret.

Wild plums and shiso leaves grown in Lebanon.  (Photos: Handouts from Hanan Bou Najm)

“I did my research and found that Lebanon has a lot of wild plum trees, and that our mountains were the best source for this type of wild plum which is from the prunes family,” Bou Najm told Jordan News. “It is beyond organic, it grows wild, it is untouched!” In Japanese “ume” means plum, while “boshi” means fermented, although at first, she tried cooking the plums and pickling them, but found that fermentation was best.

She explained that this type of wild plum had been used by Lebanese farmers over 500 years ago, who used to cook and ferment the plums then turn them into a paste, which they then used in their cooking instead of tomato paste. In fact, Bou Najm pointed out, that when tomatoes first arrived to Lebanese shores from the new world via Europe, farmers used to feed them to cattle to increase milk yield, rather than eat them.

A Japanese customer poses with Lebanese umeboshi. (Photos: Handouts from Hanan Bou Najm)

The intense sour and salty notes make umeboshi a perfect condiment to marry with Lebanese cuisine. Balsam Jbalna also makes and sells umeboshi paste and vinegar, which is sold via Souk el Balad, an artisanal foods and produce market that pitches its tents at the Beirut Souks mall every Saturday.

However, in a country with serious pollution issues, Bou Najm was very careful to go to the least accessible and highest mountain plains and valleys to harvest this wild fruit. “We would park our cars and walk up for two hours. We were 10 men and women, and we would collect the plums as well as other wild berries, which we mixed in with our fermented plums,” Bou Najm said.

Last year she imported organic shiso seeds, and she planted and successfully cultivated the first commercial shiso plants in Lebanon. The shiso leaf is an essential “third ingredient” in the process of making umeboshi, in addition to the wild plums and the wild berries.

A photo of Balsam Jbalna’s products.(Photos: Handouts from Hanan Bou Najm)

“We add the wild berries exclusively for our Balsam Jbalna product, Japanese umeboshi does not include wild berries. I added these berries because they have antioxidant qualities that combat cancer and cardiovascular problems,” Bou Najm said.

The wild plums are collected the same way wild Zaatar is collected, straight from the high mountain plains and valleys, which she said are so inaccessible that they do not belong to anyone, it is sort of like an open air pantry.

“Last year we produced three tonnes of umeboshi, this year we doubled that yield,” Bou Najm said. In fact, her project was of such a unique and special nature, on top of being an entirely wild and natural product, that it caught the eye of USAID.

“They have been working with me and supporting me for a year, I have been attending training courses they arranged for me in anticipation of starting to export my product,” Bou Najm said. But it will likely be a “shy start” into the export market at first, she said.

Her initial studies into the demand for umeboshi in Europe found that in France and Italy, among other export markets, demand for the delicacy rose by 90 percent during the pandemic period, coupled with a shortage of Japanese imports of the fermented pickled plums.

In addition to creating a value added product that is in high demand worldwide, Bou Najm has created a locally affordable alternative of a specialty Japanese product that is within Lebanese consumers’ reach, selling it for a fraction of the price of imported varieties. Exports of the plums, paste, and vinegar are supposed to help bring in much needed hard currency to the country during the current tough economic situation.

Wild Lebanese plum trees bearing fruit.(Photos: Handouts from Hanan Bou Najm)

“It is important to create awareness of this wild plum all across the region if only for its health benefits. In the macrobiotic diet we have to eat at least one plum a day. In the Hunza Valley in Pakistan, where locals live to be well over a 100 years old, people there eat three of this kind of plum a day,” Bou Najm said.

She warns however, that these plums are not to be eaten raw, they are far too hard and sour. “You can try and bite into one, but you will throw the rest of it away,” she quipped.

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