What's in season?....Citrus fruits
Vitamin-rich citrus fruits are abundant this season and are nature’s remedy for the winter illnesses that prevail. They are grown almost all over Japan, but thrive in the warmer regions that face the Pacific Ocean in Western Japan. There are many varieties of Japanese citrus fruit that may not be familiar to you - let’s take a look at what’s available in our stores this month.
Mikan (みかん, 蜜柑)
In Japan, mandarin oranges are a symbol of longevity and the luxury brands are frequently given to friends and family as gifts. They are collectively referred to as ‘mikan’ and are a large and varied group.
Iyokan (いよかん, 伊予柑) are the second most widely grown citrus in Japan and abundantly available at this time of year. The iyokan is a large-sized citrus that is easy to peel by hand and has a good sweet-sour balance. It is one of the juiciest citruses and therefore recommended if you are planning to make fresh juice.
Ponkan (ポンカン , ぽんかん) is a large-sized tangerine that has slightly bumpy skin. Its small-medium size and easy-to-peel zipper skin make it a very convenient citrus. Despite it having a small number of seeds, it is often the fruit of choice for most children who love its sweet flavour. Ponkans are best eaten fresh.
Setoka (せとか) is a luxury, high-grade citrus, with two pieces costing almost 500 yen. It is a recent invention and was bred from two types of mandarin and an orange, taking the best features of each. It is a very sweet, very juicy, seedless citrus that melts in your mouth. Its very thin peel is easily removed by hand. The whole fruit including the pith can be eaten.
Kanpei (かんぺい, 甘平) is another luxury citrus and recent invention. It is a very sweet, seedless citrus that has a thin peel that is easy to remove. Kanpei means ‘sweet and flat’ which reflects the taste and shape of the fruit.
Unshu mikan (うんしゅうみかん, 温州蜜柑) are satsumas and account for almost 80% of citrus fruits grown in Japan, and when the Japanese speak of a ‘mikan’, they are almost always referring to this variety of mandarin. They are very sweet, almost seedless and their convenient size and easily-peeled zipper skin make them an ideal snack food. They are not widely available in stores now as their season ends in January, but as the most popular citrus in Japan they deserve a mention here.
Hassaku (はっさく, 八朔)
The Hassaku orange is the hybrid of a grapefruit and a mandarin. It is similar in colour to an orange, but comparable in size to a grapefruit. It has a sweet, tart and slightly sour taste and the fruit has little juice. Although the Japanese eat hassaku as an orange by peeling it, we prefer to eat it like a grapefruit by cutting it in half and scooping out the inside with a spoon, thereby avoiding the very bitter pith that clings to the fruit when peeled. The fruit is mainly eaten raw as it becomes more bitter when it is cooked. The thick peel also makes good marmalade.
Buntan (ぶんたん, 文旦)
Buntan is a natural (non-hybrid) citrus known also by the names pomelo and shaddock. In Japan there are almost forty varieties of buntan. It is a large fruit that has smooth, glossy, yellow skin and looks similar to a grapefruit. The white-yellowish flesh is quite sweet, slightly bitter and moderately juicy. The medium-thick peel is difficult to remove by hand and is best cut away with a knife. The fruit has a very thick and bitter pith that is usually discarded as it is considered inedible. Individual segments of the fruit are also enveloped in membranes and need to be peeled before eating. Buntan can be eaten fresh or sprinkled with salt, added to fruit and green salads and cooked to make jellies, jams and sauces. It’s thick and highly aromatic peel make it perfect for making into marmalade.
Dekopon (デコポン, でこぽん)
Dekopon is recognisable by its characteristic protruding bump, large size and thick bumpy skin. It was initially thought that this hybrid citrus would not be well-received due to its ‘unattractive’ appearance, but the fruit was appreciated by Japanese consumers for its rich, sweet flavour and has become one of Japan’s most popular and expensive citrus fruits. The fruit is seedless and the thick peel comes of easily leaving very little pith behind. Dekopon was originally a brand name, but now is used to refer to all brands of the fruit from Japan if they meet certain quality standards. The citrus is also sold under its generic name shiranui (しらぬい, 不知火). The best way to enjoy the fruit is by eating it fresh.
What is the difference between an orange and a mandarin? Oranges have a more round shape, whereas mandarins are generally flattened looking. Mandarins also tend to be sweeter and have a looser skin that makes them easier to peel. There are two types of oranges: sweet oranges and bitter oranges. Sweet oranges include Valencia oranges (バレンシアオレンジ) and Navel oranges (ネーブルオレンジ). These are usually eaten fresh and used for their juice. Bitter or sour oranges are too tart to be eaten fresh and instead used for making marmalade, sauces or liqueurs. The Japanese Daidai (だいだい, 橙) is a variety of bitter orange and used to make the citrus-based sauce ponzu.
Kinkan (きんかん, 金柑)
Kinkans, also known as kumquats, are small orange citrus fruits. They have a sweet skin that is quite aromatic and a sour flesh. Kinkans are usually eaten whole without peeling the skin. However some people prefer to eat only the skin and discard the inner fruit. They can be used to make marmalade, jam, in desserts and as a cocktail garnish. A tablespoon of kinkan conserve mixed into a cup of hot water is used by some as an effective natural cough remedy.
Read our guide to buying fresh fruit and vegetables in Japan