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From jabara to sanbōkan, Japan is home to an exceptionally diverse pantheon of citrus fruits. Among these, the tachibana (Citrus tachibana) is perhaps one of the rarest and least-known.

Besides the Okinawan shīkuwāsā, it is the only citrus genetically native to Japan. Unsurprisingly, it is also on the Global Red List of Japanese Threatened Plants. The average consumer is unlikely to be familiar with it, much less have tasted one.

The tachibana once held hallowed status in Japan. The eighth-century “Nihon Shoki” refers to it as “the fruit of immortality,” claiming that the first tree was brought back from the underworld and planted in the south of present-day Nara Prefecture. Around 70 poems in the “Manyoshu” celebrate its beguiling fragrance; Heian aristocrats often perfumed themselves with tachibana in lieu of bathing. Even today, many people will have unwittingly encountered this citrus: miniature representations of tachibana trees are an integral part of the ornamental dolls’ sets displayed on Girls’ Day, and the ¥500 coin has tachibana fruits and flowers engraved upon its face.

Why, then, has the tachibana fallen out of favor?

Though most people haven’t tasted the tachibana, everyone has seen it; the plant’s fruits and flowers are engraved on the ¥500 coin. | SIUNAM JO
Though most people haven’t tasted the tachibana, everyone has seen it; the plant’s fruits and flowers are engraved on the ¥500 coin. | SIUNAM JO

Simply put, it’s exceptionally bitter. Though it looks like a kumquat, its flesh has the richness of a blood orange and the electric, mouth-puckering qualities of lemon and grapefruit. Its peel has an even more pronounced, medicinal bitterness that lingers in your mouth for a good hour afterward.

For fans of the tachibana, this bitterness is precisely what makes it special and worth preserving.

“It was at once bitter and sweet, with a refined, restorative fragrance,” says Nara-based food mediciner Kyoko Onishi, describing her first encounter with the fruit. Indeed, tachibana peel has a more complex volatile composition than many other citruses, which likely accounts for its distinctive aroma. Modern consumers will find it too bitter, she says, but “it would be a shame to erase that bitterness with sugar.”

These qualities, along with its rich history and cultural significance, led Kenji Jo and his friends to start the Nara Tachibana Project in 2011. Their mission is to revive interest and awareness in the citrus, preserving what they see as an integral part of Japanese culture while concurrently raising Nara’s culinary profile.

First, they began by planting more trees — when they started the project, there were only 300-odd tachibana trees remaining across Japan — and then creating new channels to promote the fruit after their first harvest six years later.

Initially, says Jo, who is the current chairman of the project and one of its five growers, they approached around 30 Japanese restaurants in Nara with samples to drum up interest, but were roundly rejected. Tachibana, they were told, was too bitter to use in washoku. An acquaintance suggested bringing the citrus to chefs who had trained in Europe. To Jo’s surprise, it was enthusiastically received.

“In Japanese cuisine, bitterness isn’t palatable,” he says. “But for the chefs specializing in European cuisines, it goes hand-in-hand with umami.”

Tachibana is the kind of ingredient you’d imagine Michelin-starred chefs parlaying into intricate, multi-component dishes. Available only by special request, the seasonal tachibana-themed course at Ristorante Borgo Konishi in Nara illustrates such possibilities: its zest is scattered over a beef goulash, its peel candied and paired with pumpkin puree. A tangy center of tachibana juice-soaked Savoiardi sponge replaces the usual chestnut in a Mont Blanc. A skewered Amazonian chocolate cube arrives soaking in a shot of aged “tachi-cello” — a riff, says head chef Masaki Yamazaki, on Italian limoncello.

Kikka Gin is made with just three botanicals — tachibana, tōki herb and juniper berry. | FLORENTYNA LEOW
Kikka Gin is made with just three botanicals — tachibana, tōki herb and juniper berry. | FLORENTYNA LEOW

“It has an incredible fragrance,” Yamazaki says. “It’s both acidic and bitter, which translates well to drawing out umami in dishes.” The juice pairs beautifully with roasted goat meat, he notes, and its leaves are excellent with seafood, as they dispel any unpleasant fishy notes.

Fresh tachibana leaves are edible and — surprise, surprise — extremely bitter, but also faintly reminiscent of sanshō pepper, another member of the citrus family. Hiroshi Kawashima, owner-chef of modern Spanish restaurant Akordu, thinks they resemble makrut lime leaves, a common ingredient in Thai cuisine. While he reserves leaves from the first flush for tempura, the bulk of the leaves he sources from Jo are steeped in 65 degrees Celsius water to make a refreshing tea, which he serves chilled or warm as an aperitif.

“Eating is an act of receiving life,” Kawashima says. “Tachibana is used at shrines to purify a place, so drinking this is like cleansing yourself before the meal.”

Like most citruses, it’s well-suited to sweet applications. Kakigōri specialist Housekibaco periodically serves shaved ice with tachibana syrup, while Hyogo Prefecture-based patissier Susumu Koyama produces a vibrant marmalade, as well as a chocolate bonbon flavored with its juice, essential oil, flowers and blossom honey.

There’s also tremendous potential for alcohol-based beverages. Besides Nara Brewing Co. Ltd’s tachibana- and coriander-infused Belgian-style craft beer, one of the most exciting products in this sphere is Kikka Gin, a small-batch craft gin produced by brewer Naoki Itatoko of Yamato Distillery, a subsidiary of Yucho Shuzo, in southern Nara.

“Tachibana has an extraordinary depth to it that other citruses like lemon don’t,” explains Itatoko, whose gin took home a Bronze rating at the International Wine & Spirit Competition in 2020. “Plus, in terms of its narrative potential, it was perfect for gin-making in Nara.”

One of Nara Tachibana Project’s most popular items is tachibana koshō, a riff on the traditional yuzu-spiked chili pepper paste. | SIUNAM JO
One of Nara Tachibana Project’s most popular items is tachibana koshō, a riff on the traditional yuzu-spiked chili pepper paste. | SIUNAM JO

Containing just three botanicals — tachibana, tōki (Angelica acutiloba) herb and juniper berry — the 59% alcohol by volume gin is remarkably smooth and drinkable. From the three tons of Jo’s annual tachibana harvest, an entire ton — peeled by Itatoko himself — goes toward producing 6,000 liters of gin.

Products like these, says Jo, are key to raising awareness and attracting new growers. “You can’t survive by just growing tachibana,” he says. “You couldn’t sell it in supermarkets, either.”

His Hong Kong-born son-in-law, Siunam, with whom he works on the project, concurs. Besides tachibana farming, they spend their time developing food products. One of their most popular items is tachibana koshō, a riff on the traditional yuzu-spiked chili pepper paste.

This strategy seems to be working: Demand far outstrips what they can supply to their clients, who have found diners extremely receptive to the once-maligned citrus. While the tachibana’s extreme bitterness means it’s unlikely to ever achieve mainstream popularity, the project’s efforts are helping lift the citrus out of its endangered status — today, the number of tachibana trees has surpassed 3,000.

“This ingredient has a 2,000-year-old history, and has its roots in Nara,” says Jo. “The tachibana truly represents Japanese culture itself.”

For more information, visit ytachibana.official.ec.

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