Dekopon: Japanese citrus makes American debut.

Dekopon. photo by Pauline Fujita.

Today the planets aligned in my little foodie world. Until a recent trip to Japan, I was completely unaware of the wealth of exclusively Japanese citrus varieties. Most lauded among them was the Dekopon — an orange-like citrus of otherworldly flavor and juicyness — which was, of course, out of season at the time of my trip. I promised myself I’d return to Japan someday during wintertime to try it.

Fast forward to earlier this week. While doing some research for an upcoming post about Japanese citrus varieties, I came upon a very recent article in the LA Times about the Dekopon. Introduction of new citrus varieties to the American market is very tightly controlled. Bringing in new fruits runs the risk of also importing new citrus diseases, which could devastate existing crops. So, perhaps not surprisingly, I learned that people have been trying for years (through both legal and sketchy channels) to start a commercial Dekopon orchard here in California. As luck would have it, after a sordid history of financial, agricultural, and legal failures a company has finally brought the first American crop of Dekopon (sold as “sumo citrus”) to market this year. In fact, I realized as I read this, Dekopon was available NOW. I almost fell out of my chair.

As an amateur foodie, I rarely get to try something that is both new to me and also new to everyone else. Here I was, in the right part of the country, at the exact right time, poised to try a Japanese ingredient hitting the American markets for the first time. Fervently I scanned the list of stores mentioned in the article and readied myself for the possibility of having to drive the hundreds of miles to LA just to get my hands on a Dekopon. Crazy, sure, but still cheaper than flying to Japan.

Among the stores listed in the article and on the Dekopon company website was Whole Foods. Normally I have to drive 45 minutes to the nearest Japanese grocery store, so finding Dekopon at the Santa Cruz Whole Foods was an extremely long shot. Could the hard-to-find fruit be only a 10-minute bike ride from my house?! I didn’t have high hopes, but I was about to literally eat my words. Standing in line to buy my precious Dekopon and grinning like an idiot, I couldn’t help but gush about it. To the cashier. To the produce manager. Even to the lady in line behind me, who I talked into buying five for herself. (“It’s a special kind of Japanese citrus!” I said. “And this is its American debut!”) And how fortuitous was this? The article ran two weeks ago, and the produce manager informed me that the fruits came in only a few days ago. I missed eating it on “Dekopon day” by just two days.

Dekopon up close and personal. photo by Pauline Fujita

But let’s get down to brass tax: The Dekopon was amazing — every bit as sweet and juicy as the descriptions I’d read and effusing an intense orange taste and smell. When the LA Times writer likened the orange membranes to gossamer, I thought this must be hyperbole, but I can find no better description. And the pith … What pith? The skin around the fruit is almost loose and peels back easier than a clementine, leaving behind barely any evidence of pith. I briefly hesitated to post this without some sort of relevant recipe. But really, you should just enjoy the fruit unadulterated.

For those that are Dekopon-curious, it was selling for $2.99 a pound at Whole Foods (and listed as available at many other Bay Area locations). After much test marketing, it is being called the “sumo citrus,” complete with references to its characteristic bump as a “top knot . The Dekopon is a hybrid of the kiyomi and ponkan citrus varieties. It was experimentally crossed back in 1972 in the hopes of generating a Japanese citrus variety that could compete in the American market against the large, local California favorites. Ever the scandal-maker, it was originally abandoned for its irregular shape, low yield per tree, and quickness to rot, but then stolen by a Kumamoto farmer who later became the Dekopon-father, as it were.

Dekopon (left) shown with lemon, navel orange and lime for scale. photo by Pauline Fujita

Originally a trademark name of fruits grown in Kumamoto prefecture, “Dekopon” came to refer to the fruit itself, irrespective of provenance. A 2009 Japan Times article quotes it as being grown in 23 of Japan’s 47 prefectures, and it clocks in as the third largest citrus crop by hectare. The bump, once rejected by upscale Japanese marketers as ugly and overly suggestive, is now its hallmark, along with fruit-sugar levels that far surpass those of clementine and navel oranges.

But why are you still reading? The crop this year is said to be small, as the trees are still quite young, and the season short. If you’re lucky enough to be in California, check out this new fruit, and delight in something the Japanese have long coveted as a domestic treasure.

Further reading:

Gordenker, Alice. “Dekopon.” Japan Times, 22 Jan. 2009.

Karp, David. “The Dekopon arrives in California.” Special to the LA Times, 27 Feb. 2011.

 

About Pauline Fujita

Pauline Fujita lives in Santa Cruz, California. A biologist by trade and a glutton at heart, she's especially interested in Japanese and Japanese influenced food.

Comments

  1. It looks kinda like my folks’ Satsuma mikan (tangerines) grown in the countryside of West Sacramento, which also peel easy… I just saw this on a flyer at Nijiya in SF’s Japantown. Now I’m curious… Thanks Pauline!

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