Yes Mi-Kan! Japan’s Mandarin Orange Obsession

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Because as a friend and fellow blogger pointed out, they do indeed really like their fucking oranges around here.

Native to Southeast Asia but at first only cultivated in large quantities in China and Japan, mandarin oranges are still pretty big here today – in fact, the only countries that produce more of them annually are China, Spain, and Brazil. Often used as gifts as well as just a casual snack (especially around Christmas and the New Year holidays, when many types are at their seasonal best), the humble mandarin orange is widely available in Japan in a staggering number of varieties and offshoots. Since a few prefectures, my own included, are even famous for them, I thought it might be nice to write a post introducing a few of the more popular kinds around the area.

Mikan

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When people think ‘mandarin’, this is likely the sort of thing that immediately springs to mind. Also referred to as satsumas in the UK, after the name of a citrus-growing region in Kagoshima prefecture, mikan are usually fairly small, quite sweet, and not overly acidic. They’re also juicy, seedless, and easy to peel, making them easily one of the most widely consumed types of mandarin oranges in the country – although they’re a particular specialty of both Ehime and Wakayama. 100% mikan juice, mikan-flavoured sweets such as ice cream, jelly, and chocolate, and all manner of snacks that can be given away as souvenirs are therefore also extremely prevalent in these areas. Perhaps unsurprisingly, even Ehime’s prefectural mascot is a cute (?) orange… thing named Mikyan – here pictured alongside Ehime’s football club mascot, who I’ve lovingly named Belligerent Orange-kun.

Iyokan

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Very similar in appearance to mikan, iyokan are the second most widely produced citrus fruit in Japan. Although the name is derived from Iyo, the old name for Ehime prefecture where the most iyokan are now grown, they were first discovered in Yamaguchi prefecture during the Meiji Period. The relative thickness of the skin make iyokan a little harder to peel than mikan, and the flesh has a stronger scent and bitterer taste, but they’re still sweeter than grapefruit and fine to eat raw. One particular variation of the iyokan, which is grown into the (apparently lucky) shape of a pentagon and given the nickname ‘Gokaku no Iyokan’ – roughly meaning ‘the sweet smell of success in exams’ – is sometimes handed out to Ehime high school students as good luck charms during university entrance exam season.

Ponkan

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Also known as the Chinese Honey Orange, ponkan are reasonably large and very plump, and are most popular around Chinese New Year thanks to their size, juiciness, and strong flavour; one or two on their own is typically more than enough to eat in one sitting. Sweet but tangy, ponkan are still easily peeled despite their thick skin, are effortlessly separated into even segments, and have few or no seeds. As Ehime once again produces the most ponkan in Japan, they’re often served up as a kind of dessert in the prefecture’s school lunches – particularly in January and February, when mikan season is nearing its end.

Dekopon

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Something of a cross between a mikan and a ponkan, this fruit is a bit more expensive than the others on the list, and for good reason. Dekopon, only first developed in Japan in 1972, was originally a trademarked brand name product from Kumamoto prefecture. Other fruits of the same kind had to be given different names – for example the Hiroshima ‘hiropon’ and Ehime ‘himepon’ – until dekopon became a genericised trademark in the 1980s. Grown today in 23 of Japan’s 47 prefectures, dekopon are about as large as navel oranges, with thick, rough skin and a large protruding bump at the top. Seedless and with a very concentrated taste, dekopon are one of the sweetest citrus fruits in the world, and are popular enough in Japan they’ve even earned their own limited edition flavour of Hi-Chew candy.

Yuzu

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Introduced to Japan from China during the Asuka Period, around half of all domestic production of yuzu today comes from Kochi prefecture. Yuzu look much like grapefruit, with uneven skin and a greenish colour that turns to yellow as they ripen. They have comparatively little pulp and are too tart to be eaten on their own, but their juice is often used for seasoning much like lemon juice is elsewhere, and can also be used along with the rind as an ingredient in jams, marmalades, candies, teas, and cocktails, among other products. Perhaps most famously, the very aromatic yuzu are traditionally placed into hot baths on the Japanese winter solstice – a custom dating back to at least the early 18th century. Commonly known as ‘yuzuyu’, or sometimes ‘yuzuburo’, this fragrant bathing experience is not only relaxing but is also said to have various health benefits, including guarding against colds and treating rough skin.

Sudachi

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A zesty, lemon-like fruit, sudachi are related to yuzu but are usually considerably smaller and pulpier, and are harvested and used while still green, although they eventually ripen to a fairly bright orange. Sudachi have been closely associated with Japanese cuisine since the country’s early history; they’re used as flavouring in place of vinegar, as a garnish with soba and udon noodles, and for their juice which can be squeezed over grilled fish. Tokushima prefecture yields the vast majority of sudachi in Japan today, where a number of sudachi-flavoured products such as ice cream, popsicles, and soft drinks are likewise a common sight.

Question of the post: Soaked in a yuzu bath? Tried sudachi-infused udon or dekopon Hi-Chew? Had a photo op with Mikyan? Let me know about your mandarin orange experiences in the comments!

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25 thoughts on “Yes Mi-Kan! Japan’s Mandarin Orange Obsession

    • Well, no party is really complete without Belligerent Orange-kun, but I’ll give you an extra point for Sir EMP. Two if Mikyan and Nyanyo were actually dancing together.

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    • The yuzu baths really are great, aren’t they? My local onsen put them in a while ago, which made for a slightly unexpected (but very welcome!) bathing experience. Unexpected because the staff just happened to put the yuzu in when I was relaxing in the sauna, so when I came back out again there were suddenly a bunch of yuzu bobbing around in the water.

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        • It’s pretty easy to onsen when you have one basically next door. I usually go at least once a week now, because there’s also yoga classes held in one of the upstairs rooms of the main building that I go to, and the cost covers free use of the onsen afterwards.

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            • I’ve been to Kyoto a few times but never had an onsen there. Out of curiosity, around how much does it typically cost? (For comparison, my local onsen is lovely but also very rural and not particularly fancy, and costs 500 yen.)

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              • The “real” onsen cost at least 1,000yen to get in, but the one near my house is 1700yen. Of course, you’re paying for several baths with a manicured Japanese garden, etc. 500yen is about what I would expect to pay for a fitness club’s bath.

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  1. I’ve only eaten Chinese ponkans before, although I think they should be just as good as the Japan grown ones.
    A lot of them get imported out from China during this time, especially for Chinese New Year celebrations worldwide.

    Happy Year of the Goat!!

    PS. How expensive are yuzu baths? Do every onsen offer them?

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    • Yeah, I think they would probably taste very similar and be pretty much equal in terms of quality.

      The onsen that I usually go to just offers the yuzu bath in the winter for a perk – you don’t pay any extra for it. I obviously don’t know about every onsen, but since it’s such a big tradition then I’d guess that many, if not most, onsen put yuzu into their bath on or around the winter solstice.

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  2. My knowledge on oranges isn’t as extensive as yours, but if I get everything right, I think I had ate a fair share of mikan and ponkan myself, in fact, just ate some ponkan recently since it’s Chinese New Year period now xD

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  3. I learned something new today… or at least a few things, seeing as I have never heard of Iyokan, Ponkan, or Sudachi. You can tell Shimane is not a citrus prefecture. ^^;; But Yuzu is my winter love!

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    • Then I’m glad. 🙂 I discovered a couple of things myself while doing a bit of research for this article, but I worried it would make for somewhat dull reading, and that even people who lived in Japan wouldn’t really get anything out of it. Now I can feel like I achieved something beyond being able to gush about my new-found love of citrus fruit.

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  4. Those Dekopans look weird O.o The pentagram iyokai is also interesting.

    Israel is actually known for its export of citrus fruits, mainly orange, to Europe and other colder countries. I love citrus fruits. Oranges, grapefruits, clementines, pomelos, oroblancos, and even lemons, and my neighbours used to have a kumquat tree for most of my life.

    I can’t eat as many citrus fruits as I’d like, as they contain a lot of sugar, but I love them. I love their textures, and the zest, and just writing this has me salivating from the memory of citrus fruits’ taste on my tongue. During junior high and high school, I’d peel off 80% of the orange’s peel and then eat it as one eats an apple.

    This post though, now I see there are many citrus fruits I never even heard of, and must hunt down. I wonder if the markets in Israel have them, if I look hard enough, but I doubt it 😦

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    • Yeah, unfortunately I think at least some of the citrus fruits listed here are grown only in parts of Asia, and while I’m sure Japan also does its fair share of exporting them, I don’t know that it does to Israel. 😦

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      • Israel is also in Asia! Technically! 😛 Heh. Yeah, Israel probably doesn’t import fruits from that far away, and I doubt it imports citrus fruits from anywhere farther away from the Mediterranean, if at all :-/

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  5. Pingback: Tastes of Japan Pt 2 | Speculative OP

  6. Pingback: Top 3(ish) in Japan | OTAKU LOUNGE

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