Yuzu (柚子): Sweet, Tart and Perfectly Imperfect - Japan's Most Popular Citrus Fruit
Written by Kevin Kilcoyne
When one thinks of citrus, there are a few fruits that probably come to mind. There are of course oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruits, and tangerines, and while there are different varieties of each, like navel and Valencia oranges for example, the list is not all that extensive. It might come as a surprise then that there are over 40 varieties of citrus fruits produced in Japan. There are mikan, sudach, daidai, kabosu, bushukan, and iyokan to name a few.
Of these over 40 varieties, there is one citrus that has been prized for over a thousand years in Japan, and more recently around the world, and that is the yuzu.
Looking like a rougher cousin to the lemon, the yuzu is a small yellow fruit that more closely resembles a grapefruit and has a taste somewhere between a grapefruit and mandarin; tart with a hint of sweetness. Its thick skin is usually mottled with the bumps and divots that hold the rich oil capsules that make the yuzu so fragrant.
Yuzu trees are relatively easy to cultivate and have therefore thrived for over 1200 years in Japan due to their strong resistance to crop damaging disease or blights. Initially brought over from China via the Korean peninsula, the fruit was widely used for medicinal purposes before being cultivated for culinary uses as well. In fact, to this day yuzu can be found steeping in baths and onsen during toji, or the winter solstice, to stave off colds and flus and to replenish cold-chapped skin, and rich in vitamin C, vitamin E, potassium, and antioxidants, it’s no wonder why.
Today yuzu are widely cultivated on the island of Shikoku, mostly in the prefectures of Kochi, Tokushima, and Ehime, but can also be found farther southwest in Oita, Kagoshima, and Miyazaki. Although the fruits can be harvested and eaten throughout their maturation, yuzu are mainly harvested when they turn a golden-yellow, generally between November and early January. Additionally, although the harvest season is very short, they are a hearty fruit and can therefore be stored and sold all the way into early spring.
How are Yuzu Used?
Too sour to eat raw in the same way one would an orange or a mandarin, yuzu are generally grated or juiced to take advantage of their intensely floral and citrus aromas. In that way, same say it is a fruit that can be experienced with all the senses, and as such, every part of it is used from the rind to the seeds.
The versatility of yuzu is one of the reasons why it is so prized. In Japan it is used to flavor soft drinks, teas, cakes, pastries, and other desserts. There are vinegars, salts, liquors, and sauces made using the juice or zest of the fruit, the most popular arguably being ponzu.
Ponzu is a citrusy dipping sauce made by combining and fermenting soy sauce, yuzu juice, konbu seaweed, and bonito flakes. Although yuzu is widely used to make ponzu, its cousin the sudachi fruit is a more commonly used ingredient. Either yuzu or sudachi ponzu, the sauce is often served as an accompaniment to sashimi as well as the winter staple nabe hotpot. Winter isn’t the only season where it makes an appearance, its refreshing tang is thought to help fend off natsubate, or summer fatigue, and is a great pairing for any kind of cold summer noodle dish.
Another condiment made with yuzu is yuzukoshō, a paste made by combining the peel of unripe green yuzu fruit with salt and hot green peppers. Sharp and spicy, yuzukoshō pairs well with a variety of ingredients, but is often served in the winter alongside the hotpot dish oden. There are also a wide variety of yuzu flavored snacks in Japan like chips, rice crackers, mochi, and cookies.
As abundant and ubiquitous as yuzu flavored items might have become in Japan, the fruit is still prized for its elegance and is used in high-end cuisine as much as it is in regular, everyday Japanese homes. It is a signal of the changing of the seasons and as such plays a prominent role in the Japanese haute cuisine known as kaiseki ryōri, but it also has a place in the home cooked meals found at regular dinner tables.
As mentioned, there are also plenty of ways to bring the flavors of yuzu into your cooking even if it doesn’t show up on your supermarket’s shelves, be it ponzu or dried yuzu powder. If you can get your hands on some of the fresh fruit though, try sprinkling some zest of the rind into a soup to impart a hint of the floral yuzu aroma, or mix the juice with olive oil to make a simple dressing. Yuzu also makes a great addition to any seafood marinade and can add the tartness to any tart tart. The sharp tang of yuzu has a place in dishes both savory and sweet, from main courses to desserts and even to cocktails.
It may be as versatile as any other citrus, but there certainly isn’t anything else quite like yuzu.
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@kevinjkilcoyne) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food.
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LiMarzi, Julia. “Essential Guide to Japanese Citrus.” https://www.bokksu.com/blogs/news/essential-guide-to-japanese-citrus
Loss, Laura. “13 Ways you can Enjoy Yuzu, Japan’s Favorite Citrus Fruit.” https://digjapan.travel/en/blog/id=11424
“Yuzu: Season, Major Production Areas, Varieties, and Characteristics.” https://foodslink.jp/syokuzaihyakka/syun/fruit/yuzu.htm