Those accustomed to a Western diet are used to all sorts of citrus fruits working to brighten things up, happily digging into everything from lemons and limes to grapefruit and oranges.
But over in Asia, there’s a whole other batch of pucker-inducing plants, all boasting their own unique qualities and tastes. And comparing them to the citrus fruits popular in Western cuisine is a bit like comparing apples and – well, something other than oranges.
Despite its relatively under-the-radar status in the United States, yuzu is one of the more popular citrus fruits grown and eaten in Asia.
The plant was originally developed in central China, widely believed to be the hybridization of a mandarin orange and a lemon-reminiscent fruit called the ichang papeda. But it wasn’t long before the yuzu tree abandoned its roots, with travelers taking it over the years through the Korean peninsula and, eventually, Japan.
And in its wake, it’s left any number of culinary impacts, whether they revolve around special soups or simple snacks.
Though looking at the yuzu, you’d likely never know it.
The fruit is on the aesthetic humble side, coming in with bumpy and uneven skin that sports its signature yellow hue. Size-wise, it stands slightly prouder, with the round citrus fruits growing to be decently larger than the mandarin oranges that spawned them.
On the inside, yuzus resemble a lemon, with a layer of white pith and segmented flesh, though they harbor several seeds much larger than those belonging to their citrusy cousins.
But their taste and smell is something wholly their own, with an especially aromatic flesh that smells fresh like grapefruit and a flavor pallet that’s mostly tart, with hints of mandarin orange.
And that delicious versatility has made the yuzu a nearly irresistible ingredient, with the plant showing up in plenty of pantries, to be used in any number of ways.
With any number of applications, yuzu is truly the soup-to-nuts fruit, especially in Japanese and Korean cuisine.
The island nation uses yuzu as an integral part of its ponzu sauce, a nearly ubiquitous brown sauce that thankfully and deliciously accompanies any number of dishes there.
Its skin cut to slivers, yuzu also tops many Japanese soups as a garnish, with its zest and juice being harvested for any number of culinary creations.
But it’s not just the sour or savory side of the kitchen where yuzu shines. The fruit is cooked into any number of Japanese desserts, from marmalade to cakes.
And it can just as easily join the dining room in drink form, as yuzu mixed with honey makes for a popular additive to everything from tea to cocktails.
Meanwhile in Korea, the citrus fruit typically shines at dessert time, adding its unique flavor to an array of jams, jellies and marmalades, though it’s also turned into a tea there and even makes its own brand of fruit punch.
And around the world, yuzu has earned quite a reputation outside the kitchen – and deep in the wellness world. Its distinctive scent has yuzu oil showing up in everything from perfume to bath bombs.
The fruit’s ample seeds have also long been considered a beauty treatment, traditionally administered to treat skin irritations and itchiness. Seeds were preserved in the Japanese liquors Shochu or Sake – while today, they’re more regularly ground up or extracted from to blend more smoothly into skin creams.
Plus, there are a few different types of yuzus out there – as if the fruit didn’t already offer enough variety!
Though, since yuzu can basically do it all, the venerable pocket knife of fruits doesn’t have nearly as many cultivars as its citrusy cousins.
An ornamental varietal is grown in Japan, called hana yuzu, which translates in English to “flower yuzu.” But like its name may indicate, the tree is grown more for its brilliant yellow flowers than the fruits it bears.
Another Japanese cultivar, yuko, was grown specifically for its essence of sweetness, though the genus was particularly susceptible to disease, which nearly wiped it out in the 1970s and ‘80s. (Yuko is still grown today, though in much lower numbers than its glory days.)
And a version called the shishi – or “lion yuzu” – is also popularly grown in Japan, distinguished for its particularly pockmarked skin.
Otherwise, the yuzu remains a relatively untouched gem of the natural world: A powerful, potent and pungent reminder that sometimes, Mother Nature’s blueprints need very little rendering.