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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!