NOTHING COMPARES TO YUZU
I suffer terribly from what you might call a paralysis of wonder. When I become the custodian of something truly marvellous, notably beautiful, or a little bit rare, I worry so much about using it for a sufficiently special purpose that, more often than not, I fail ever to use it at all. My kitchen, in particular, is a graveyard of reverent neglect: a golden bottle of sunflower oil, pressed by monks in an ancient Georgian monastery, long past rancid; a little jar of barbecue sauce folded into my palms years ago by a grizzled pitmaster in Tennessee; a desiccated hunk of white truffle tucked in molding white rice; bags of international potato chips hanging on far beyond their sell-by dates.
Not long ago, a package arrived at my apartment, in Brooklyn, from a friend in the Bay Area, containing a new priceless gift: a dozen fresh yuzu fruits, plucked a day earlier from a tree in her mother’s yard. The moment I opened the box, two things happened simultaneously. One, my kitchen was suffused with the fruits’ intense, floral aroma. And, two, I vowed that I wouldn’t let these treasures go to waste.
“Treasure” is not much of an overstatement when it comes to yuzu. The knobbly-skinned Japanese fruits are among the most exquisite members of the citrus family: more floral than an orange and nearly as tart as a lime, with a scent that is dense and disarming, the Froot-Loops-y honey of a lemon blossom wrapped around an astringent armature of industrial floor cleaner (which is somehow exquisite), then magnified tenfold, then mailed to the moon. “The yuzu fragrance is entirely its own,” Shizuo Tsuji, a titan of Japanese gastronomy, wrote. It “resembles no citrus familiar to the West.”
The fruit is also a treasure in a more material sense. Yuzu trees dot California, an arboreal legacy of Japanese immigrants from the late nineteenth century, but their commercial growth there is limited, and the U.S.D.A. has a ban on the import of fresh yuzu from abroad—the fruit and the trees. So, for citrus aficionados living outside the farmers’-market radius of the California coast, processed, pre-prepared yuzu products are pretty much all we’ve had. In the rare instances when I’ve seen fresh yuzu for sale in the tri-state area, almost always at a Japanese specialty grocery, they’ve been staggeringly expensive, running fifteen to twenty dollars a pound. (In contrast, lemons are generally a dollar or two per pound.) I’m told that, among New York chefs, there is a thriving black market in fresh yuzu smuggled from Japan.
The fruit’s honeyed tartness is clear and lovely in all its packaged, processed forms—perfuming vinegars and hot sauces, infused into vodka and shoyu, tarting up yogurt and cheesecakes. If you were yuzu-obsessed, you could soften your lips with yuzu balm, garland your meals with yuzu salt, soothe your throat with yuzu tea, and dress your buttered toast with yuzu marmalade. But—as with all citrus—even the brightest processed-yuzu product is a tinny AM radio compared with the full, lush surround sound of the fresh fruit. A ripe yuzu is rough-skinned and yellow-orange, almost spherical, flattened slightly at the stem and the flower ends. Its skin is pitted and pockmarked, and often hangs loosely around its flesh. The fruit’s scant juice is puckeringly sour, but its rind is gently sweet, and rich in aromatic oils.
Yuzu is thought to have originated in China, but the fruit is most closely identified with Japan, where it is one of the nation’s essential aromas and flavors. It’s a key ingredient in ponzu sauce, the tangy blend of yuzu juice and soy sauce that often accompanies cold noodles or fried pork cutlets. It also lends zing to highballs, seasons potato chips, and is a favorite flavor for candy. On the winter solstice, bathtubs and onsen throughout Japan teem with whole yuzu, bobbling in the hot water to give bathers (including capybaras) a bracing soak.
My apartment’s bathtub is pitifully shallow, so a yuzu bath was out. The fruits have very little juice—they’re mostly pith and massive seeds—so squeezing out my entire stash, just for a couple of hasty at-home cocktails, seemed tactically misguided. I considered my bounty, wavering on the edge of catastrophic inaction, and arrived at a plan: the best part of a yuzu is what Tsuji described, in his book “Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art,” as its “marvelous aromatic rind,” so I decided to zest the fruits, using a fine-tooth grater to scrape off only the colorful and aromatic outer layer of the skin. I would use it to make yuzu kosho, a fiery-hot condiment of chiles, zest, and salt—it’s simple to make, keeps practically forever, and shows off all that’s wonderful about this exhilarating fruit….
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