July 23, 2013

yamamomo (Myrica rubra)

‘Tis the season for yamamomo (Myrica rubra), variously known to the English-speaking world as Chinese or Japanese bayberry, red bayberry, yumberry, Asian bog myrtle, Chinese strawberry tree or waxberry. Of these last two names the former comes from a resemblance to the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) and the latter because the fruit of other myrica species is coated in wax (from which candles can be made) and therefore they are known as wax myrtles or wax berries. However, despite sometimes being referred to as waxberry, the fruit of M. rubra does not have a waxy coating. A friend who lives without electricity (and thus always interested in potential sources of candle wax) has been wholly unsuccessful, despite her best attempts, in extracting any wax from M. rubra.

The Japanese name, yamamomo (山桃), means ‘mountain (yama 山) peach (momo 桃)’ although there is nothing very peach-like about the fruits of yamamomo. But then neither is there much peach-like about the native plums which are called sumomo (which once meant vinegar, or sour, (su 酸) peach (momo 桃)[1], although in contemporary Japanese sumomo is usually written 李 which obfuscates this older meaning). As far as I can see the only thing these other momo’s have in common with peaches is that they are round, stone fruits and usually red-ish.

The fruits of yamamomo are about 1.5 – 2 cm’s in diameter (there are cultivated varieties that have larger fruits however, according to local growers, the fruit is easily damaged by inclement weather at harvest time). The fruits grow in clusters and are dark red to purple when ripe. The tree is evergreen with leathery leaves and grey bark, reaching heights of 15 metres. It grows on forested mountain slopes (100 – 1500 metres) throughout southern China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the Philippines…[2]

yamamomo ​(​Myrica rubra)

The fruits are refreshingly tart and may be eaten fresh though often they are served in a sweet syrup. They also make wonderful wine (and if you can make wine you can, of course, make vinegar too). In both China and Japan they are used to make a medicinal liquor (steeped  in báijiǔ in China and shōchū in Japan). See recipes below.

I have been told that, in the past, the seeds of yamamomo were also eaten in Japan. The seeds are “stones” like those of plums — although rather small they are very hard. I am yet to find out exactly how the seeds were rendered edible but I will surely update this post when I do.

The traditional medicinal uses of M. rubra by the peoples of east Asia include as an antidote for arsenic poisoning, a carminative, an anti-inflammatory, for the treatment of diarrhea, dysentery, dyspesia, nausea, excessive perspiration, psoriasis, and in the treatment of wounds, ulcers and sores.[3]

For the treatment of arsenic poisoning, wounds, sores and skin diseases a decoction of the stem bark is applied externally.[4]

The leaves have long been known to practitioners of Chinese medicine to be anti-inflammatory and recent studies have shown the juice of the fruits is also anti-inflammatory and effective in the treatment of ulcers.[5, 6]


Yamamomo in syrup

yamamomo in syrupThe few recipes for sweetened yamamomo that I have seen recommended cooking the fruit for 5 – 10 minutes in the syrup but I find this makes the fruit too mushy and it loses its wonderful tart edge. They also recommended an equal weight of sugar to that of the fruit – I say half that amount of sugar is plenty. I suspect these people don’t even like yamamomo!

  1. Soak yamamomo in a salt brine for 30 minutes then rinse. This is to remove insects of which there are usually plenty.
  2. Bring sugar (half the weight of the fruit) to a boil in enough water to cover the fruit.
  3. Add the fruit and boil for just a couple of minutes.
  4. Put the fruit in jars and cover completely with the the syrup and screw on lids.

After about 24 hours they should be ready. Kept in a cool place they should keep for a month. If, once filled and capped, the jars are covered with hot water and boiled for 20 – 30 minutes the fruit should keep for up to a year. For more on processing for long term storage see here. I have attempted a batch with raw fruit — the yamamomo was not placed in the boiling syrup but directly in the jars and the hot syrup poured over the fruit — however, it started to ferment within a few days. Still tasted great though.

After finishing the fruit the syrup is used to make a very pleasant summer drink. Pour a little in the bottom of a glass and fill with cold water.


Yamamomo Wine

Yamamomo wineYamamomo fruits are coated in wild yeasts which, if treated right, will happily make alcohol for you. And they’re so easy to please! Place the fruit in sugary water and stir often. As simple as that. How much sugar you use will affect the vigour and length of fermentation and thus the strength (alcohol content) of your brew. For a strong wine, use more. For 2kg of yamamomo I use about 1.25 kg’s of sugar. To make a simple “country wine” to be consumed “green”: [7]

  1.  Do not wash the yamamomo. You want to keep all the wild yeast on the fruit. Yes, there probably will be many tiny insects in the fruit but these will be strained out later. Place the fruit in the bottom of a container – a food grade plastic bucket or large glass jar will do nicely.
  2. Dissolve the sugar in enough cold water to generously cover the fruit (5 to 10 cm’s is good). Pour this mixture over the fruit in the bucket.
  3. Stir. And stir often. The more you can stir your potion the better. I stir my concoctions anywhere from 6 to 10 times a day. At a minimum give it at least four good stirrings every day.Making yamamomo wine
  4. Between stirring keep your bucket covered with a lid, cloth or anything else that keeps flies and dust out.
  5. After a day or two you should see bubbles or froth forming on the top of the liquid. Keep up the daily stirrings until the froth begins to lessen – hopefully this will take a couple of weeks.
  6. When fermentation does begin to subside strain in to bottles and enjoy.


Yamamomo vinegar

Vinegar is essentially wine that has been overexposed to oxygen. Once the yeasts that converted the sugars to alcohol have begun to lose steam through lack of food acetobacter (acetic-acid-producing bacteria who were always present but until now held in check by the vigour of the yeasts) begin to dominate. It is acetobacter that will turn your wine in to vinegar.

So, to make vinegar follow the wine making steps listed above but rather than bottling the finished wine strain it into another wide mouthed container and keep covered with a cloth. Taste regularly and when it reaches the desired acidity (when it tastes like vinegar) bottle and cap. A vinegar ‘mother’ may have formed on top which you’ll need to remove before bottling. But don’t discard this. You can eat it, feed to it to your chickens or compost it.


Yamamomo Koubo

Given that yamamomo is abundantly covered in wild yeasts (kõbo) it can also be used as a yeast source for bread (and probably beer too). Place some fruit in a jar, cover with water and add some honey or sugar. Stir or shake the jar often (if shaking release pressure by opening the lid after shaking). When it begins to bubble vigorously it is ready to use. For bread, just add some of the liquid to your dough mix. A little experimentation may be needed to get the amount right.


Yamamomo shochu

yamamomo (Myrica rubra) ShochuSimply steep yamamomo in liquor for a month or more. Here in Japan shōchū is typically used, in China it is báijiǔ and in Korea soju. These are all white liquors usually ranging from around 35 – 60% alcohol by volume. Vodka would be an obvious substitute. If you’re concerned about little insects in your alcohol soak the fruit in a salt brine for 30 minutes then rinse. Place the fruit in a jar and cover with liquor of your choice.

If your focus is on extracting the medicinal qualities of yamamomo then what you are making is a tincture. Fill your jar with as much fruit as possible before adding the liquor. Let it sit for at least one month and keep it out of direct sunlight. Shaking it around a bit from time to time is not a bad idea either.

If, on the other hand, you just want to flavour some liquor for drinking then less fruit/more liquor can be used.



1. https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/スモモ. Accessed 7/19/2013.

2. Flora of China Vol. 4. Available online at efloras.org. Accessed 7/20/2013.

3. Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases. Accessed 7/23/2013.

4. Plants for a Future, Myrica rubra. Accessed 7/23/2013.

5. Wang, S.J., et al., ‘Anti-inflammatory activity of myricetin isolated from Myrica rubra leaves.’ Planta Med 76(14), October 2010.

6. Alajmi et al., ‘Some pharmacological actions of Myrica rubra.’ African Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology Vol. 7(9), 8 March, 2013. PDF from Academicjournals.org. Accessed 7/23/2013.

7. For more on making country wines (or any other fermentation technique for that matter) see Sandor Katz, The Art of Fermentation. Chelsea Green, 2012.


Ferment III (Shoyu)

September 20, 2010

Shoyu is a fermented soybean product known to the English speaking world as soy sauce. Although, much of what is sold as soy sauce is not produced  by fermentation at all but is the product of a chemical process using soy extract, ethyl alcohol, sugar, salt, food colouring and preservatives. Tamari, originally a byproduct of the miso making process is now brewed,  using a similar process to traditional shoyu making but without the addition of wheat.

Soybeans are soaked, cooked (boiled or steamed) and left to cool. Cooling is facilitated by dividing cooked beans amongst a number of containers and regularly turning the beans to bring the hot ones below to the surface and fanning those on top. The amounts placed in each container are precisely measured to ensure the correct relative amounts of wheat can be added later.

Wheat is dry roasted. A slow even roasting is achieved by constant stirring over low heat. This can be done in batches and as long as the colour of each batch is similar an even roasting across batches has been achieved.

Roasted wheat, now cooled to room temperature, is mixed with koji (Aspergillus oryzae) and divided into equal amounts relative to the number of batches of soy beans cooling in the containers.

Wheat/koji is mixed through the soybeans. Then the remaining wheat is also added to the mix.

Wheat, koji and soybean mix is spread out onto bamboo trays covered with cotton inside a ‘plastic house’ (the greenhouses typically used by Japanese farmers). The next stage of the process, where the koji mycelium spreads through the bean and grain mix, requires a warm and humid environment, hence, the plastic house.

Magnolia leaves are placed directly on top of the bean/grain mix and these are covered with the edges of the cotton cloth.

Cotton sheets are placed over the trays and straw mats over the sheets.

In two to three days the koji will colonize the bean/grain mix and cover it with a fluffy, fragrant mold mycelium.

The bean/grain/mycelium mix is poured into a brine (sea salt and good quality water) and thoroughly mixed. From this point on the mixture (moromi) will need to be stirred every day for about one year after which it will be stirred every other day for another year. When stirring it is important to keep the sides of the barrel clean as it is here that contamination is likely to occur. The inside of the barrel above the level of the moromi should be carefully wiped down after each stirring.

The new batch in the rear, then a two year old batch and a one year old batch in the foreground. Between stirrings the barrels are covered with cloth.

Following is a description of what is occurring during the aging process.  It comes from the wonderful book Culinary Treasures of Japan: The Art of Making and Using Traditional Japanese Foods by Jan & John Belleme, 1992 (New York: Avery Publishing Group).

[E]nzymes from the koji and the naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria slowly breakdown the complex carbohydrates, proteins, and oils of the wheat and soybeans into sweet sugars, aromatic alcohol, and flavorful amino and fatty acids.

After about two years the moromi is placed in cotton sacks and pressed. The soy oil that rises to the top is skimmed off and you have the shoyu. It is left to settle, pasteurized under  low temperature and bottled.

Ferment II (Natto)

July 10, 2010

I’ve been a little quiet on the blog lately as we have been in the mountains in the Philippines without electricity or roads, let alone internet access. We hit a south east Asian natural farming jackpot in the mountains of Ifugao but you’ll have to wait a bit longer for the reports on that. In the meantime there are some posts that I began in Japan before leaving for the Philippines…

Natto is probably the most notorious of all the Japanese ferments. If you tell a Japanese person you like Japanese cuisine they will inevitably ask “but how about natto?” It seems that westerners particularly struggle to appreciate natto. I have introduced a few people to it and not one of them was willing to try it a second time (unless it was heavily disguised in miso soup). I believe its mostly the texture that people struggle with. The texture of natto is, well, slimey. The smell is also rather strong, comparable in intensity to a very mature blue cheese. Sound appealing? It is absolutely delicious, really.

Natto is made by fermenting soy beans. The nutritional value of many foods is increased with fermentation but it is particularly important with soy beans as the fermentation reduces the mineral binding effects of the phytic acids present in soy beans. Other forms of fermented soy beans include miso, shoyu (soy sauce) and  tempeh. Although natto is usually made with very small soy beans any soy beans can be used. In the step-by-step photographs of the natto making process below we are using large green soy beans.

After the fermentation process is complete natto is prepared for eating by whisking it up with chopsticks and, usually, adding a little mustard and shoyu. The whisking creates a kind of goo resembling melted cheese that sticks to the beans and makes them potentially very messy to eat. It is usually eaten with rice and, just in case the strong smell, strange flavour and slimey texture aren’t enough, it is often eaten for breakfast, when our stomachs are at their most vulnerable!

Natto process, from top to bottom:

1. Rice straw contains the bactria Bacillus subtilis. It is this bacteria that is used to ferment the soy beans in making natto. The rice straw is cut to size to fit in the plastic containers we are using. Traditionally the natto is made in a rice straw ‘package’.

2. The rice straw is pasteurized (heated to about 65 degrees centigrade). Bacillus subtilis can withstand relatively high temperatures so pasteurizing the straw kills off other bacteria and favours the Bacillus subtilis.

3. Cool the pasteurized rice straw.

4. Place half the rice straw on the bottom of a container.

5. Place cooked soy beans on the rice straw. The soy beans should be soaked overnight before cooking. Because Bacillus subtilis can withstand high temperatures it is not necessary to cool the cooked beans although it is probably best to let the cooked beans sit for 10 minutes or so after cooking is finished.

6. Place more of the rice straw on top of the beans.

7. Put a lid on the container and place in an insulated box with a hot water bottle. Let sit over night and the natto should be ready just in time for breakfast.

8. In my eagerness to taste the natto we had made I forgot to take a photograph of it! This photo was found on the web and shows natto made from the smaller brown soy beans that are typically used in commercial natto production.

Coming Soon: Ferment III (Shoyu)

Ferment (Miso)

May 15, 2010

For a more detailed account of the miso making process see my article Making Miso published by the Permaculture Research Institute

To make 5 kg miso:

1.3 kg soy beans (almost any legume can be used)

1.8 kg koji

0.6 kg salt (mixed in to koji)

50 g salt (sprinkled on top)

good quality water (soaking beans and cooking beans)

Soy beans are soaked over night and cooked on a wood fire. The heat source imparts flavour to the miso and wood fires are thought to produce the best taste.

Cooked soy beans are strained. Liquid is kept for later use.

Soy beans are mashed in a suribachi (Japanese mortar and pestle).

Mashed soy beans are placed in a large mixing bowl.

Koji (Aspergillus oryzae) is mixed with salt.

Mashed soy beans are mixed with koji.

Correct consistency of mixture is achieved by adding left-over cooking liquid as needed. The consistency is tested by forming the bean/koji mixture into a ball and throwing it against a hard surface. If the ball cracks the mix is too dry and if it splatters everywhere its too wet.

Mixture is rolled into balls.

Pots are cleaned with alcohol.

Balls are thrown into pot.

Mixture is pressed down forming a flat surface.

Salt is sprinkled on top, especially around edges.

Bamboo leaves are placed on top. This helps prevent mould forming on the surface.

Alternatively, cling film can be used to prevent mould forming.

Three years later…

Aspergillus oryzae