Resurrecting the tachibana, Japan’s oldest native citrus

Resurrecting the tachibana, Japan’s oldest native citrus

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From jabara to sanbōkan, Japan is dwelling to an exceptionally numerous pantheon of citrus fruits. Amongst these, the tachibana (Citrus tachibana) is maybe one of many rarest and least-known.

Apart from the Okinawan shīkuwāsā, it’s the solely citrus genetically native to Japan. Unsurprisingly, it’s also on the International Purple Checklist of Japanese Threatened Crops. The typical client is unlikely to be conversant in it, a lot much less have tasted one.

The tachibana as soon as held hallowed standing in Japan. The eighth-century “Nihon Shoki” refers to it as “the fruit of immortality,” claiming that the primary tree was introduced again from the underworld and planted within the south of present-day Nara Prefecture. Round 70 poems within the “Manyoshu” have a good time its beguiling perfume; Heian aristocrats usually perfumed themselves with tachibana in lieu of bathing. Even in the present day, many individuals could have unwittingly encountered this citrus: miniature representations of tachibana bushes are an integral a part of the decorative dolls’ units displayed on Ladies’ Day, and the ¥500 coin has tachibana fruits and flowers engraved upon its face.

Why, then, has the tachibana fallen out of favor?

Although most individuals haven’t tasted the tachibana, everybody has seen it; the plant’s fruits and flowers are engraved on the ¥500 coin. | SIUNAM JO

Merely put, it’s exceptionally bitter. Although it appears to be like like a kumquat, its flesh has the richness of a blood orange and the electrical, mouth-puckering qualities of lemon and grapefruit. Its peel has an much more pronounced, medicinal bitterness that lingers in your mouth for an excellent hour afterward.

For followers of the tachibana, this bitterness is exactly what makes it particular and value preserving.

“It was without delay bitter and candy, with a refined, restorative perfume,” says Nara-based meals mediciner Kyoko Onishi, describing her first encounter with the fruit. Certainly, tachibana peel has a extra advanced unstable composition than many different citruses, which probably accounts for its distinctive aroma. Trendy customers will discover it too bitter, she says, however “it will be a disgrace to erase that bitterness with sugar.”

These qualities, together with its wealthy historical past and cultural significance, led Kenji Jo and his pals to start out the Nara Tachibana Mission in 2011. Their mission is to revive curiosity and consciousness within the citrus, preserving what they see as an integral a part of Japanese tradition whereas concurrently elevating Nara’s culinary profile.

First, they started by planting extra bushes — once they began the undertaking, there have been solely 300-odd tachibana bushes remaining throughout Japan — after which creating new channels to advertise the fruit after their first harvest six years later.

Initially, says Jo, who’s the present chairman of the undertaking and certainly one of its 5 growers, they approached round 30 Japanese eating places in Nara with samples to drum up curiosity, however have been roundly rejected. Tachibana, they have been advised, was too bitter to make use of in washoku. An acquaintance advised bringing the citrus to cooks who had skilled in Europe. To Jo’s shock, it was enthusiastically obtained.

“In Japanese delicacies, bitterness isn’t palatable,” he says. “However for the cooks specializing in European cuisines, it goes hand-in-hand with umami.”

Tachibana is the form of ingredient you’d think about Michelin-starred cooks parlaying into intricate, multi-component dishes. Accessible solely by particular request, the seasonal tachibana-themed course at Ristorante Borgo Konishi in Nara illustrates such potentialities: its zest is scattered over a beef goulash, its peel candied and paired with pumpkin puree. A tangy middle of tachibana juice-soaked Savoiardi sponge replaces the standard chestnut in a Mont Blanc. A skewered Amazonian chocolate dice arrives soaking in a shot of aged “tachi-cello” — a riff, says head chef Masaki Yamazaki, on Italian limoncello.

Kikka Gin is made with just three botanicals — tachibana, tōki herb and juniper berry. | FLORENTYNA LEOW
Kikka Gin is made with simply three botanicals — tachibana, tōki herb and juniper berry. | FLORENTYNA LEOW

“It has an unbelievable perfume,” Yamazaki says. “It’s each acidic and bitter, which interprets properly to drawing out umami in dishes.” The juice pairs fantastically with roasted goat meat, he notes, and its leaves are glorious with seafood, as they dispel any disagreeable fishy notes.

Contemporary tachibana leaves are edible and — shock, shock — extraordinarily bitter, but additionally faintly paying homage to sanshō pepper, one other member of the citrus household. Hiroshi Kawashima, owner-chef of trendy Spanish restaurant Akordu, thinks they resemble makrut lime leaves, a standard ingredient in Thai delicacies. Whereas he reserves leaves from the primary flush for tempura, the majority of the leaves he sources from Jo are steeped in 65 levels Celsius water to make a refreshing tea, which he serves chilled or heat as an aperitif.

“Consuming is an act of receiving life,” Kawashima says. “Tachibana is used at shrines to purify a spot, so ingesting that is like cleaning your self earlier than the meal.”

Like most citruses, it’s well-suited to candy functions. Kakigōri specialist Housekibaco periodically serves shaved ice with tachibana syrup, whereas Hyogo Prefecture-based patissier Susumu Koyama produces a vibrant marmalade, in addition to a chocolate bonbon flavored with its juice, important oil, flowers and blossom honey.

There’s additionally large potential for alcohol-based drinks. Apart from Nara Brewing Co. Ltd’s tachibana- and coriander-infused Belgian-style craft beer, one of the vital thrilling merchandise on this sphere is Kikka Gin, a small-batch craft gin produced by brewer Naoki Itatoko of Yamato Distillery, a subsidiary of Yucho Shuzo, in southern Nara.

“Tachibana has a unprecedented depth to it that different citruses like lemon don’t,” explains Itatoko, whose gin took dwelling a Bronze score on the Worldwide Wine & Spirit Competitors in 2020. “Plus, when it comes to its narrative potential, it was excellent for gin-making in Nara.”

One of Nara Tachibana Project’s most popular items is tachibana koshō, a riff on the traditional yuzu-spiked chili pepper paste. | SIUNAM JO
One in every of Nara Tachibana Mission’s hottest gadgets is tachibana koshō, a riff on the normal yuzu-spiked chili pepper paste. | SIUNAM JO

Containing simply three botanicals — tachibana, tōki (Angelica acutiloba) herb and juniper berry — the 59% alcohol by quantity gin is remarkably clean and drinkable. From the three tons of Jo’s annual tachibana harvest, a complete ton — peeled by Itatoko himself — goes towards producing 6,000 liters of gin.

Merchandise like these, says Jo, are key to elevating consciousness and attracting new growers. “You may’t survive by simply rising tachibana,” he says. “You couldn’t promote it in supermarkets, both.”

His Hong Kong-born son-in-law, Siunam, with whom he works on the undertaking, concurs. Apart from tachibana farming, they spend their time growing meals merchandise. One in every of their hottest gadgets is tachibana koshō, a riff on the normal yuzu-spiked chili pepper paste.

This technique appears to be working: Demand far outstrips what they’ll provide to their shoppers, who’ve discovered diners extraordinarily receptive to the once-maligned citrus. Whereas the tachibana’s excessive bitterness means it’s unlikely to ever obtain mainstream recognition, the undertaking’s efforts are serving to elevate the citrus out of its endangered standing — in the present day, the variety of tachibana bushes has surpassed 3,000.

“This ingredient has a 2,000-year-old historical past, and has its roots in Nara,” says Jo. “The tachibana really represents Japanese tradition itself.”

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