Autumn Mystery Fruit in Japan: Akebi

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Photo by Victoria Vlisides

There it was: bold and bright purple. I spotted it in the fruit section and couldn’t get it out of my mind. Was that color even natural? Was this a fruit or a potato just too darn close to the other colorful produce. When I went ahead and shared my curiosity on our GaijinPot Instagram page, it seemed other folks were just as intrigued.

The akebi, or chocolate vine, (OK that name clears up nothing) is not as weird as I thought. It’s found in other Asian countries, but grows in the northern part of Japan and is very much an autumn fruit. In my three years here, I hadn’t seen or heard of anything quite like it.

Photo by Victoria Vlisides

You can only buy this fruit for a short time in autumn.

So, I did what any weirdo like me might do: bought one at my local supermarket for ¥398 and brought it to work the next day. When I showed it to Japanese and foreign coworkers alike, everyone had the same question: “What the hell is that?”

“Akebi!” I said with a smile. That starkly faded after I tried my treasure that was clearly labeled that it came from Yamagata Prefecture, where a whopping 93 percent of the fruit is produced in Japan.

We did it. We tried “akebi” an autumn “fruit” from northern Japan. The results were… why and how are people eating this?? After trying all parts of it, we found that only 1 part is tasty. Can you guess which part??(Later, one of our Japanese coworkers pointed out that we ate it prematurely. (And that the purple skin can be fried and eaten.) So cool. #notaneggplant #strangefruit #lowhangingfruit #japanesefood

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Bitter. So, so bitter. I tasted the seed, the skin and the meat. All bitter. How was this a fruit, we wondered? As it turned out, the gooey part attached to the seed was the sweet… ahem… spot. So, I looked into it with a little more candor. (You’re probably wondering why I didn’t do that earlier. I wanted to go in with no expectations of commitment, OK!? Plus, it really added to the shock value.)

A Japan Times article tells briefly about the fruit, which grows on a vine and mentions that it is, in fact, bitter and defaults to the idea that Japanese people, back in the day, didn’t have many sugary things, so they saw this as acceptably sweet. Of course, Japanese are well-known for using every bit of the land and its resources, so this fruit was utilized in the Tohoku diet, apparently even using oil from the seed. Yet, it was only introduced commercially a few decades ago. Perhaps it’s easy to find in the northern Tohoku region but having lived in several spots closer to Tokyo, it was completely foreign to my even-more-foreign tongue.

As listed on specialtyfruit.com, Akebi fruit is only available for two weeks out of the year. (That means, if you want to try it this year, go find it now if you’re in Tokyo.) Of course, this varies as to where you are in Japan as to when it will be in season. According to one Tokyo Blogger, Tom Baker, it can even be found at Kyoto’s famous Nishi Market. He goes into a detailed description of his experience, which was a nuance of what I had gotten myself into when blindly trying the fruit. Supposedly, when it ripens and the peel cracks, you can dig right in.

How to eat it

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So how do you (correctly) eat it instead of gaijin smashing your way through this purple pod that’s part of Japan’s vast culinary maze?

The inner fleshy part connected to the seeds ended up being quite sweet and fragrant. But, the seeds, flesh and skin were very bitter and left a bad taste. Best to leave it to sit and get a bit riper than unripe. In any case, there are a few dishes to be made with this bright purple non-potato: most commonly you can deep fry it or make a nice little stir fry out of the rinds. Be sure to “mellow out” the harsh bitter edge by soaking the unopened pod in water for thirty minutes to an hour.

It’s also worth noting that it should probably look something like this before you eat it:

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Anyways, hope that answered more questions than it left. So the only thing left to ask is: Did that make you want to go out and try one or run away in terror?

Well, if you’re still not convinced to try it, apparently there are a few more uses for it: Prevention of colds and a beautifying skin effect from its healthy proportions of vitamin C (65 mg), folic acid (30 mcg) and potassium (240 mg: peel).

For me, it’s this type of everyday exploration that keeps you falling in love with this country — even if it leaves a bad taste sometimes.

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A Tokyo-based journalist incessantly asking, "Why?"

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