When you scan the grocery tea isles in the West, one thing that stands out is the growing trend in flavored green teas. There’s mint, pomegranate, peachy ginseng, lush lemon and the lot! It’s no wonder that westerners assume yuzu-cha (yuzu tea) is green tea flavored with yuzu, a citrus fruit indigenous to Japan. But nothing could be further from the truth!
Yuzu-cha does not contain one single tea leaf! It usually comes in a jar and looks suspiciously like soupy marmalade with strips of peel suspended in a syrup-like juice. To make “tea” simply add a tablespoon of it to a mug and add hot water! Then sit back and start sipping while the huge dose of vitamin C does its thing!
Yuzu can only be described as a Japanese citron. The flavor is unique and not very similar to any citrus fruit in the west. It’s not a lemon, it’s not a lime, it’s not a Saville orange or even a Mayer lemon. If you have dined in a Japanese restaurant, you may have tasted it in ponzu sauce, soy sauce containing yuzu juice. Known for containing incredibly high vitamin C, it’s a flavor that Japanese people simply adore and that makes an appearance in culinary creations up and down the country.
Among all the yuzu found in Japan, one tiny pocket in Yamaguchi Prefecture is quietly stunning local communities with their wild organic yuzu products, and their most famous is yuzu-cha. The small town of Tawarayama is home to over 1300 wild yuzu trees, some that are between 100 to 200 years old, and not one of them purposefully planted.
The ancestors living in Tawarayama would eat the fruit and spit the seeds on the ground. One yuzu fruit contains between 28 to 30 seeds! Because the ground is so fertile, trees began to spring up out of the ground. As they kept eating the fruit and spitting the seeds, not thinking about what they were creating, pretty soon the town was overwhelmed with yuzu fruit. Folks simply didn’t know what to do with all of the fruit littering the ground and not enough was being eaten by wildlife.
To solve the problem of the yuzu fruit invasion, Mr. Kanagawa and his wife started gathering the wild fruit to make yuzu-cha for their family. Volunteers in the community started helping them and soon they began selling it to the local community. I was invited to visit on the day they were making it and what a long and laborious process it is!
After harvesting the wild, organic fruit from trees all over town, the yuzu is brought to the local school kitchen and sprayed with water to get a clear look at the skin. Brown spotted fruit (lower quality) is put in one bucket and perfect fruit, bright and yellow, in another bucket. The fruit is then washed with spring water two times to clean it and then they wait for the fruit to air dry before cutting it.
The fruit is cut in half on the “equator” so you have a northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere, with the stem being in the north! I was thinking to myself “aw, how cute” but there is a reason to this hemisphere language! The fruit must be squeezed “southern hemisphere” style with the inside of the fruit facing the ceiling. This allows the oil from the skin to be collected into the juice, adding significantly to the flavor. About 120 yuzu fruits, or 20 kilos, will produce 2 liters of juice.
The next step is scooping out the remaining pulp and seeds, so the valuable peel can be cut into strips. This is the shining star of yuzu-cha! Going back to the first step of sorting brown spotted fruit from the bright yellow…here is where two different quality grades are produced. The best peel is reserved for their premium yuzu-cha and the brown-spotted is now sold to the locals. They want the very best to leave Tawarayama and charm drinkers up and down the country!
The final step is making the tea and bottling it. A very special beet sugar is used in Kanagawa’s recipe because it is a healthy, natural sugar that isn’t very processed very much.
Yuzu-cha is quite addictive and the giggling ladies admitted to eating it out of the jar, spooning it into yogurt, over ice cream and as a jam but they all drink it as tea every day. No wonder their skin is silky smooth…and you would never guess that the oldest volunteer, and the ringleader, is 90 years old!
Images provided by author.