Akebi is a mysterious and beautiful fruit native to the north of Japan and has only been cultivated and available in stores only in recent decades. The translucent white flesh inside, filled with countless white capped shiny black seeds is eaten as fruit. Unbeknownst to many, the purple pod can be cooked and eaten as well, but like a vegetable, not a fruit! Now that is a versatile fruit!
About the Mysterious Akebi Fruit アケビ 木通
Traditionally, the image that many Japanese have of akebi is a wild fruit that scruffy country kids pluck and eat from vines in Tohoku (North Honshu) while playing in the mountains. As people became ever more interested in discovering new and interesting culinary sensations, a variety of akebi that could be cultivated was developed. Cultivation only began about 20 years ago and is centered mainly in Yamagata Prefecture in the Tokohu region of Japan.
In Tohoku traditional akebi cuisine did exist; the fruit was mixed with salt to pickle cucumber and is said to increase the sweetness (akebi doesn’t taste sweet), the pod is stuffed, sauteed and deep fried – even akebi tempura! I found some Japanese foodie bloggers that had very non-traditional akebi pod ‘katsu’ which looked remarkably similar to the popular deep fried pork cutlet dish called tonkatsu! (Sauteed akebi pod article here.)
In Akita Prefecture oil was produced from the akebi seeds, however this was very rare and was a herbal medicine. Interestingly, recent scientific research has shown the akebi to have antiseptic properties and is diuretic.
Traditionally, in Yamagata Prefecture people believed that the spirits of ancestors returned to this world for obon on a ship made of the akebe pod and offered akebi on the family Buddhist alter.
Akebi makes a brief appearance for just two weeks or so in early autumn, usually in upscale grocery stores and specialty fruit ’boutiques’. Still, many Japanese have never tasted this domestic exotic.
Ripening the Akebi
There are two varieties of akebi: wild and cultivated. The wild akebi will burst open naturally when fully ripe while the domesticated variety will not. Unless you live in rural Tohoko (North Honshu) you probably won’t run into any wild akebi. As I waited for my cultivated akebi to open naturally – it spoiled! The owner of the fruit boutique where I purchased it explained the difference to me (again) and kindly gave me a new, fresh one. (I told him it was for KyotoFoodie.)
When the akebi purple pod starts to soft you should split it open along the seam of the pod, use a knife in necessary. The pod opens easily with just a slight scoring.
How Did it Taste?
Well, it doesn’t have a distinct or overtly yummy taste. I think people eat it for the novelty of it all. The akebi is indeed beautiful in color and mysterious in form and represents the coming of autumn. Though a domestic fruit, it seems exotic.
The look and feel is similar to the flesh of lychee, but is much softer. And, it is full of tiny seeds that are essentially impossible to separate from the flesh. Japanese tend to look down on any fruit whose seeds must be eaten with the flesh.
The flesh is best slurped up seeds and all. If the seeds are chewed, the taste becomes bitter. Just eat it like you would yogurt or thick fruit smoothie.
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