Sweet, bitter, sour, sublime: Japanese citrus fruit across the spectrum
Jan 16, 2023
HOW TOSweet, bitter, sour, sublime: Japanese citrus fruit across the spectrum
As the popularity of Japanese cuisine increases across the world, it’s time to go beyond sushi and ramen. Japanese chefs use many different citrus fruits to highlight the delicate flavors of the country’s most treasured dishes.
The Japanese fruit you’ve almost certainly already eaten
If you’ve ever had a mandarin orange, there’s a solid chance it came from a tree rooted in Japan. Mandarin oranges, or mikan in Japanese, are grown around the globe today, but the satsuma variety developed in modern-day Kagoshima Prefecture are commonly found in canned mandarin oranges. After becoming massively popular, there are even towns named Satsuma after the fruit in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Texas! While mikan have gone global, Japan has many other types of unique and delicious citrus to share with the world.
Yuzu, a mainstay of Japanese cuisine, now popular worldwide
Another well-known variety of Japanese citrus is yuzu. Slightly smaller than a lime, and with green or yellow skin depending on the season, yuzu are mainly grown in Kochi Prefecture. The fruit is tart and bright with little flesh, and its juice and pungent, bitter zest are best suited for culinary applications.
Introduced to Japan from China nearly 1,300 years ago, yuzu has become a key ingredient in Japanese cuisine and culture. This includes as a base in ponzu, the citrus soy sauce that often accompanies noodle dishes and hot pot. Yuzu zest is featured in many traditional New Year’s dishes, or to add flavor to Japanese steamed custard and some types of sushi.
Yuzu is also central to the powerful condiment yuzu kosho, made from mashed zest of green yuzu, green Japanese chilies and salt. Even a dab of the spicy, bitter and delicious paste adds a powerful punch to any dish, especially grilled chicken. The juice and rind of the yuzu also find their way into cocktails and refreshing summer drinks. In winter, some hot springs offer yuzu baths, which is believed to promote circulation and help prevent colds.
Yuzu has a long history in Japan, and there are a number of other Japanese citrus species that share a connection to the fruit. Centuries of careful cultivation have given rise to a number of hybrids and descendants of yuzu, including kabosu, sudachi, jabara and more.
Kabosu, Kyushu’s delicate citrus
Kabosu, found in Oita Prefecture, is a slightly sweeter and milder than yuzu, and is used to bring out the delicate flavors of some of Japan’s most famous dishes. Small wedges of kabosu are often served with fugu (pufferfish) sashimi, grilled white fish, cold udon or even miso soup. A hybrid of sour orange and yuzu, kabosu is traditionally harvested between August and October, although greenhouse
cultivation allows the fruit to be harvested and sold year round. Kabosu juice is also used in soft drinks and cocktails: replacing half the lemon juice with kabosu makes for a delicious twist on regular lemonade. In Japan, “kabosu sour” cocktails – halved kabosu mashed with soda water and shochu – are popular in bars and izakaya eateries.
Sudachi, packing a powerful, healthy punch
Also, the Japanese citrus fruit sudachi is smaller than yuzu with a sharp, distinctive sourness. Grown predominantly in Tokushima Prefecture, both the juice and the zest of the fruit are commonly used in Japanese cuisine: for added complexity in hot pot dishes, or squeezed over grilled fish like sanma (Pacific saury). Like yuzu, sudachi is also frequently used in ponzu soy sauce due to its sharp flavor.
Sudachi is often paired with matsutake mushrooms, one of the most revered and expensive seasonal ingredients in Japanese cuisine. Aside from its great flavor, sudachi is an antioxidant, and some studies have shown that it alleviates pollen allergies, while early research shows that sudachi could also help lower glucose levels.
Hope for a zesty future
While Japanese citrus juices like yuzu, sudachi, and kabosu and their dried zests are becoming more widely available, import restrictions make it difficult for people in many countries to experience the depth and delight of these Japanese citrus gems. Through your interest and a dash of luck, hopefully restrictions will be relaxed in the future, allowing more people to experience these fresh Japanese citrus delicacies.