Tasty Japan: Time to Eat!
Brightening Japanese Cuisine with a Tangy Fragrance
A bright yellow peel and a tangy aroma: these are the charms of a fruit called yuzu. Yuzu grows on a broadleaf evergreen shrub in the rutaceae family. After seeding, the tree takes at least a decade before it bears fruit, but it is more frost-hardy than any other citrus tree and even grows in Japan’s Tohoku region, where the weather is relatively harsh. The fruit ripens in autumn (around October) until the onset of winter. Unripe fruit sport a dark green peel and are picked in summer (generally July) and sold as ao-yuzu (“green yuzu”).
Japanese people have long used yuzu in their cuisine. Most often, the fruit has a lot of seeds and not much juice, so the rind is used more than the flesh. The rind is peeled thin or chopped fine, then used in clear soups or hot pots to bring out the flavor. Here is one way to prepare it: place clear soup in a bowl, add small pieces of minced rind and cover the bowl. This traps the fragrance inside the hot pot until, at the table, you remove the cover and release the aroma with the steam, delighting everyone waiting to eat.
In the kitchen, yuzu is used in a variety of ways. One dish that takes full advantage of its ability to charm is yuzu-gama (“yuzu pot”). The peel of the fruit itself becomes a little bowl, served in formal meals like New Year’s dinners and kaiseki ryori banquets. To make it, slice off the top of the fruit, scoop out the inside, then stuff with ingredients such as a vinegared preparation. The yellow peel provides an accent to the meal and creates impact with its color. Moreover, the rind delicately transfers its aroma to the ingredients inside. “Aroma is one important element to make a meal tasty, and when winter comes I’d say we need yuzu. It’s not too expensive in Japan and not hard to find, and just a little adds zest to the meal. It’s a great little ingredient,” says culinary expert Araki Noriko.
The juice is strongly acidic, and when mixed with soy sauce or a broth it makes a tangy sauce called ponzu, for hot pots and steamed dishes. Unripe ao-yuzu can be used to make a seasoning—mash it, then mix in green chili and salt. The recipe comes from Kyushu and the seasoning, called yuzu kosho (“yuzu pepper”), is widely used as a condiment for soba noodles or an extra flavorful salad dressing.
The Japanese use yuzu for another purpose other than for food. In Japan, on the shortest day of the year (winter solstice, generally December 22), it is customary to fill the bathtub and then float pieces of the peel or the fruit with the peel on the water. People say that soaking in hot yuzu-yu water with the fragrance wafting up brings warm comfort and refreshment, not only to the body, but to the soul.
An aroma for the dining table and the bathtub! Yuzu brightens up life in Japan, and soothes the mind, too.