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The Zesty World of Yuzu

December 18, 2017

Aromatic, versatile and refreshing, yuzu is often used in Japanese cuisine, and increasingly all over the world. Indeed, the zingy citrus fruit is now having a moment on the international culinary scene, as it is coveted by the most renowned chefs for its unique tangy taste. Not limited to kitchen use, yuzu can also be found in skincare products, aroma oils… and even in your bathtub. Read on to discover the zesty world of yuzu.

Not quite a lemon, not quite an orange

Yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit, somewhere between a Meyer lemon (a sweeter type of lemon that originated in China) and a mandarin orange. It is generally a bit smaller than a regular lemon, and it has a very thick and coarse skin. You can easily recognize yuzu at the supermarket thanks to its rounded shape and rich golden hue. It has a unique fragrance that is clearly different from lemons or oranges, and can be used fresh, dried or ground to make a spice.

Yuzu is a sour fruit, so it is rarely eaten on its own. Instead, the skin and juice of yuzu is used in cooking: the juice can season various dishes, just like lemon juice does, and yuzu peel is used as garnish—not only does it add a beautiful, vibrant color to a dish, but it also provides a little punch.

In Japan (and now internationally as well), yuzu is used for several culinary preparations: sauces, vinaigrettes, seasoning for salt and pepper, sushi vinegars and pastries and sweets. It can also be directly used on grilled fish, tofu, and in beverages, including tea, soft drinks or even cocktails. Yuzu has a particularly long and illustrious history of use in kaiseki (fine Japanese cuisine), thanks to its splendid aroma. Yuzu is also even used in the flavoring of many snack products, such as chips and chocolate bars.

Yuzu is in season during the winter. Japan is the fruit’s most important producer and consumer. Nowadays, yuzu is mostly grown on the island of Shikoku, with over half of the domestic production coming from Kochi Prefecture, thanks to its mountainous climate and precipitation. The small village of Umaji, on the east side of the prefecture, is especially famous for its yuzu production. The village even started to produce its own yuzu and honey soft drink, named after the village.

No wonder why yuzu is so coveted: it is delicious, highly versatile, and boasts numerous nutritional benefits. According to agricultural representatives from Kochi Prefecture, in addition to containing more vitamin C than lemons, yuzu is high in calcium, potassium and citric acid.

Seasonal yuzu

Although yuzu is in season in winter, it can be used practically all year round. In spring, yuzu trees grow highly fragrant white flowers. In summer, the trees grow a green fruit—if it is harvested, aoyuzu (literally “green yuzu”) rind can be grated and served with foods such as sashimi, to give it a hint of spicy citrus flavor.

Yuzu is not only reserved for eating: another important Japanese tradition is a special hot bath, called yuzuyu, and taken on the winter solstice day. It is believed to ward off winter colds and flu, and to heal dry skin. When yuzu is placed in the bath, the hot water helps to release a pleasant aroma from the fruit. It is said to be relaxing and to help improve circulation. Some hot spring resorts in certain regions of Japan offer yuzu baths, which seem to leave the skin particularly smooth.

Spice things up with yuzukosho

Photo: Vivian Morelli

Yuzu has a unique, complex flavor, which can be described as sour, tart and even spicy. One of the spiciest condiments in Japanese cuisine is actually made of yuzu, and is called yuzukosho (literally "yuzu and pepper"). It is a spicy Japanese paste made from yuzu zest, green or red chili peppers, and salt. The aromatic acidity and spiciness of this paste complements various ingredients, including (but not limited to) meat, fish, noodles and rice. Some adventurous chefs even use it in desserts!

It’s very easy to make yuzukosho at home, something I got inspired to try as I watched this recipe on JAPANESE FOOD. It was easy to gather the few ingredients needed for the recipe, but little did I know I would have to put my arm muscles to use! First, I zested each yuzu (you can use a citrus zester, or simply a vegetable peeler), a rather relaxing and fragrant activity that left my house with a delicious scent of yuzu. Then came the hard work, which involved pounding the yuzu zest with the pieces of chili pepper with a pestle in a mortar, until it became a smooth paste. It requires a lot of strength and patience, but the final result makes it all worth it! I used a golden yellow yuzu as it was in season at my local market, and the result was a brightly-hued yellow and red paste that livens up my current winter meals. However, if you’re making this recipe in the summer, you can use the aforementioned green aoyuzu, mixed with green peppers, for an entirely different but just as colorful and appetizing paste. You can even keep it for up to one year if you freeze it, and use it regularly to spice up your meals.

Text and photos: Vivian Morelli