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An Island Bursting with Zest

Citrus production is big business in the regions bordering Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, and two tiny hamlets in the area yield mountains of the fruit. Yuzu and sudachi are the varieties prized most, thanks to their refreshing taste and fragrance—and several positive effects on health.

Citrus fruits are popular ingredients in kitchens throughout the world because of their tart, refreshing juice, peels and pulp, which boast a flavor and fragrance suitable for everything from main dishes to cocktails to desserts. Lemons and limes are probably the most prominent citrus fruits in Western cuisine. Japan has its own array of zesty citrus: Hiroshima Prefecture is known for its lemons, for example, and Ehime Prefecture for sweet, luscious tangerines. Oita Prefecture’s kabosu, a fruit similar to a lime, has many fans as well.

Yuzu and sudachi are two other popular choices in Japan, appreciated for their culinary versatility along with their unique and delicious flavors. Shikoku, the smallest of the archipelago’s four main islands, is one of the country’s biggest producers of these Japanese citrus fruits. The picturesque isle lies west of the main island of Honshu, across the Seto Inland Sea, and its climate, similar to that of Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Greece, is ideal for all kinds of citrus production, especially sudachi and yuzu.

Kamiyama-cho, a small town nestled in the mountains of Shikoku in central Tokushima Prefecture, harvests 1,300 tons of sudachi annually—the biggest crop anywhere in Japan. Sudachi, which resemble small limes, were once hard to find except at luxury restaurants, but have been used lavishly and with pride in the local cuisine, and can now be found even in casual restaurants all around Japan. Although large-scale cultivation did not begin until 1956, sudachi trees over two hundred years old have been found in Kamiyama-cho, pointing to the region’s long tradition of cultivation. Refrigerating sudachi after they’re picked allows them to retain their flavor for a long time, and Kamiyama-cho made a point of acquiring refrigeration technology that has helped sudachi production flourish to meet increasing demand throughout the land.

The tiny fruit is packed with antioxidants and vitamins, and locals in Shikoku praise sudachi for health benefits such as reducing fatigue, aiding in calcium absorption and preventing blood sugar spikes. Sudachi also contribute to a healthier overall lifestyle by reducing sodium intake when used in place of salt or soy sauce.

For those unfamiliar with its taste, the sudachi has a mild flavor and high acidity, making it an ideal partner for countless other ingredients. Cooks will tell you that sudachi coaxes out the flavors in other foods. In addition, most of its pleasant, fresh scent resides in the peel, which is ideal because it will not overpower the fragrance of other ingredients when its juice is added to dishes.

The Mizuki Teahouse, a restaurant and traditional inn in Kamiyama-cho, takes great pride in serving dishes incorporating local ingredients. Mitsuru Yamada, the head chef, explains that sudachi subtly adds value to whatever it is combined with, making the dish better—such as the hint of complexity it lends to the teahouse’s delectable sashimi and kara-age (Japanese-style deep-fried chicken). The kara-age is even made using chicken raised on sudachi, which is then marinated in salted sudachi, deep-fried and seasoned with grated sudachi peels, making it a great way to appreciate the quality of Kamiyama-cho’s signature fruit.

Local farmer Junichi Hashimoto has been growing sudachi for sixty years, and takes great pride in his work. Still full of energy, the 83-year-old shows off his perfectly manicured orchard of sudachi trees, and lights up with passion when he talks about his work. His favorite way to eat sudachi, he says, is squeezed plentifully over tofu and fish.

Another local specialty, sudachi cider, is remarkably refreshing and full-bodied, not too sweet and not too sour. Sudachi even enhances the flavor of pilsner beers. For creative chefs, the culinary uses for the fruit are virtually boundless.

About three and a half hours away from Kamiyama-cho over winding mountain roads is Umaji Village in Kochi Prefecture. Often cited as one of Japan’s most beautiful villages, Umaji has a population of just under a thousand people. Despite its size, this hamlet is a huge producer of yuzu—a Japanese citrus fruit with a strong and distinct flavor as well as high acidity—and almost everyone here is involved in its production. In recent years yuzu have exploded in popularity, and the demand for the fruit has also grown substantially worldwide, especially as Western chefs discover its unique flavor profile.

Eisaku Okabayashi, a yuzu farmer in Umaji, spends hours pruning his trees. The more time you put into taking care of your yuzu trees, he explains, the better your produce tastes. Work for yuzu farmers is therefore virtually year-round, because they can always find ways to improve their crops by trimming overgrowth and keeping a watchful eye out for harmful weeds. Okabayashi takes immense pride in his yuzu, which he displays by eating one raw right off the tree.

At the restaurant in Umaji-mura Onsen (a combined public bath, guest house and community center) the chefs incorporate yuzu in virtually every dish, proving it can be just as useful as salt. The yuzu sushi and yuzu sherbet here are especially delicious. Even the water they serve is infused with yuzu juice, and at the baths the locals bathe in yuzu-infused waters because it contains vitamins that benefit the skin.

In Umaji Village’s center stands a beautiful riverfront building called the Yuzu Forest Factory, which produces yuzu drinks. The Forest Factory also houses a yuzu research laboratory, where resident academics conduct research on the various benefits of the tart fruit. Another feature of the factory is a design studio where designers create graphics to promote Umaji Village and yuzu to better share them with the world.

In recent years, yuzu have become extremely popular in contemporary Western cuisine, which may be a sign of the positive impact of Umaji Village’s research and marketing. The Forest Factory alone employs about 10 percent of Umaji’s population, and the people here take great pleasure in their work, hand-packing boxes of yuzu merchandise that include yuzu juice and cooking sauces.
Umaji Village also produces a popular drink called Gokkun that has only three ingredients—yuzu, water and honey—but tastes absolutely wonderful.

Shikoku’s citrus fruits are special because of their high standards, as well as the hard work and passion that local farmers invest in producing them. While some countries require medical inspections of imported Japanese citrus fruits, Japan’s peerless quality control procedures have earned the trust of its export partners. For skilled and inspired chefs, these citrus fruits can enhance virtually any dish. Those unfamiliar with this gorgeous part of Japan can get a taste of it through these citrus fruits local farmers and workers produce and share.