What comes to mind when you think of citrus fruits? Lemons and limes? Oranges and grapefruits? How about tangerines and mandarins? While this limited list might encompass the fruits commonly found in Western produce aisles, Japan boasts a rich history of citrus production and an even longer list of citrus fruits, including several that might be unfamiliar.
It may come as a surprise, but there are over 40 varieties of citrus fruits produced in Japan. Some examples include mikan, sudachi, daidai, kabosu, bushukan, and iyokan.
Of these over 40 varieties, there is one citrus fruit that has been prized for over one thousand years in Japan—and more recently around the world—yuzu!
Resembling a rougher, more dimpled cousin to the lemon, yuzu is a small yellow fruit about the size of a regular orange. It boasts a tart, yet lightly sweet taste somewhere between a grapefruit and a mandarin. Its thick skin, which is usually mottled with the bumps and divots, holds the rich oils that make yuzu so aromatic and fragrant.
Yuzu trees have thrived in Japan for over 1200 years, having been introduced from China via the Korean peninsula. Initially used for medicinal purposes, they were later cultivated for culinary applications. Even today, yuzu can be found steeping in bathtubs and onsen across Japan during toji, the winter solstice, to combat colds and flus and to soothe cold-chapped skin. Seeing as it is rich in vitamin E, potassium, antioxidants, and has three times the amount of vitamin C as a lemon, it’s no wonder why.
How are Yuzu Used?
Yuzu are too sour to eat raw in the same way one would eat an orange or a tangerine, so they are generally grated or juiced to take advantage of their intensely floral and citrusy aromas, which are at their peak in late fall and early winter. In that way, some say it is a fruit that can be experienced with all five 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 the juice and zest are used to flavor soft drinks, teas, snacks, cakes, pastries, and other desserts. Some vinegars, salts, syrups, and sauces are also made using the juice and zest of the fruit, with one of the most popular being ponzu.
Ponzu is a citrusy dipping sauce made by fermenting a mixture of soy sauce, the juice of a citrus fruit such as yuzu or sudachi, konbu (kelp), and katsuobushi (bonito flakes). It is often served as a condiment for sashimi and different hotpot dishes during the cold winter months.
Another condiment featuringyuzu is yuzu kosho,a sharp and spicy paste made using the peel of unripe green yuzu fruit, salt, and hot green peppers. There are also a wide variety of yuzu flavored snacks in Japan such as candied yuzu peels, rice crackers, cookies, and kanten,a refreshing jelly-like treat made fromagar (seaweed).
As abundant and ubiquitous as yuzu-flavored items have become in Japan, the fruit is still prized for its elegance. It is used in high-end cuisine as much as it is in regular everyday Japanese homes and acts as a signal for the changing of the seasons.
Yuzu and other yuzu-flavored ingredients are becoming increasingly popular and beloved around the world for the unique flavor and aroma it adds to any dish. So, whether it be through fresh yuzu fruit or yuzu-flavored salts, syrups, snacks or teas, it’s easy to see how yuzu can elevate most any dish in your kitchen.
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 (@waruishouten) 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.