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Kokuwa (monkey pear)

by Alice Gordenker

Dear Alice,

On a recent weekend, I joined the throngs enjoying the fall weather at Mount Takao on the western edge of Tokyo. Just before the top there was a man selling what I suppose was local wild produce, collected from the woods. He had all sorts of unusual mushrooms, for example, but it was something else that caught my attention. They were greenish-brown oblongs, about the size of olives, and not terribly attractive. But cut one open and you find the same distinctive seed pattern as in a kiwi fruit! I believe the man was trying to tell me that this Japanese fruit is the original kiwi. How the heck can that be? I thought the kiwi is native to New Zealand!

Warren P., Mitaka, Tokyo

Dear Warren,

That was a lucky spot of spotting. What you saw are the edible berries of a vine, Actinidia arguta, which grows wild throughout most of Japan. Despite this prevalence, the fruit is rarely offered for sale and I’m willing to bet that most of your Japanese friends have never heard of it. Its common name in Japanese is sarunashi (monkey pear), but people in northern Honshu and Hokkaido are more likely to call it kokuwa.

You’re right about the seed pattern. The sarunashi vine is a close relative of the plant cultivated for kiwi fruit (Actinidia deliciosa). But whereas kiwi fruit doesn’t do well much farther north than Fukushima Prefecture, sarunashi thrives even in Hokkaido. That resistance to cold is why the plant is called “hardy kiwi” in English. The vines are so tough, they were used to construct a famous suspended foot bridge (tsuribashi) near Miyoshi in Tokushima Prefecture. Called the Kazurabashi, it’s rebuilt every three years and is a designated important tangible folk-culture property.

If your vendor was telling you Actinidia arguta is native to Japan, he’s right. It’s also indigenous to China, Korea and parts of Siberia. It is not, however, native to New Zealand, although it’s understandable that you thought differently. After all, New Zealand is a major grower and promoter of kiwi fruit, and the word “kiwi” has become pretty much synonymous with New Zealand, derived from the flightless bird that is the country’s national symbol. But kiwi, the fruit, is an import, introduced to New Zealand in 1904 when an educator named Isabel Fraser returned from China with Actinidia deliciosa seeds.

So how did a bird name end up on a furry fruit? Fair question. In New Zealand, the fruit was initially called “Chinese gooseberry” because people thought it tasted like that unrelated fruit. But in the 1950s, when New Zealand growers started exporting to the United States, the name was a liability. The Cold War was on and Americans regarded anything Chinese with suspicion. Growers made a brief attempt to market their fruit as “melonettes” before settling on “kiwi fruit.” This name has proved so successful that plenty of us mistakenly assume kiwi fruit are native to New Zealand. Ironically, Italy has now surpassed New Zealand as the largest kiwi-fruit grower. The fruit is also grown in a number of other countries, including Chile, France, Greece, Japan and the United States.

Sarunashi tastes a lot like kiwi but it’s not easy to confirm that for yourself. There is almost no commercial production in Japan because the fruit has such a short shelf-life. But that’s not to say that growers have no interest in it. “Commercial growers value sarunashi chiefly as a source of genetic material,” Ichiro Nishiyama, a professor of food science at Komazawa Women’s Junior College in Tokyo, told me. “It is possible to crossbreed sarunashi with commercial cultivars, which means it can be used to develop new and improved varieties of kiwi fruit.”

Nishiyama explained that sarunashi has several traits that make it attractive for crossbreeding, including its small size and smooth, hairless skin. It’s also packed with desirable nutrients, including more vitamin C than lemons and unusually high beta-carotene content for a fruit. Sarunashi is also an excellent source of lutein, a carotenoid that is believed to contribute to eye, skin and heart health; and myo-inositol, a polyol that is being tested as a treatment for depression and cancer.

If this has you salivating for sarunashi, the good news is that you don’t have to climb Mount Takao or hope for a chance sighting. A cultivar called Actinidia arguta “Ananasnaya” is now grown commercially in countries other than Japan and marketed internationally under names such as “mini kiwi” and “grape kiwi.” In Japan, they’re called “baby kiwi” and are available for a few weeks in the spring and fall. The season for shipments from Oregon has just ended, but supplies from Chile should be in select stores by early February. Nishiyama recommends leaving them until they wrinkle, like the ones in today’s photo, because sugar content goes up if you let them ripen beyond what looks appetizing.

If you can’t wait until February, you can look now for products made with sarunashi. Don’t expect to find any in your neighborhood supermarket, but you may come across something in country stores. The Kiso Shop in Kisomachi, Nagano Prefecture, will sell you a 450-gram jar of sarunashi jam for ¥1,500. It also has 180-ml bottles of sarunashi juice, sold as a mixed 12-pack set with blueberry and raspberry juice, for ¥3,840. Shipping is extra. ( www.kiso- shop.jp or [0264] 23-3644, Japanese only). For smaller sizes, Sawaya in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture ( www.rakuten.co.jp/sawaya-jam or [0267] 46-2400, Japanese only), offers 125-gram jars of sarunashi jam for ¥500. If you can’t place an order in Japanese, they will do their best to respond to English e-mail sent to info@sawaya-jam.com.

And keep your eyes open for kokuwashu, a cordial made with sarunashi. I looked for a source without success, but hear it’s usually made fairly sweet, like a Japanese plum wine.

One word of caution: if you’ve ever had an allergic reaction to kiwi, avoid sarunashi and anything made with it because the fruit contains allergens similar to those in kiwi fruit.

Puzzled by something you’ve seen? Send a description, or better yet a photo, with the address where you saw it to whattheheckjt@yahoo.co.jp or Alice Gordenker, A&E Dept., The Japan Times, 4-5-4 Shibaura, Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-8071