Self-Portrait with Akebia Fruit

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When I was in Kyoto for the Japan Writers Conference last month, a cephalopod surprise was not the only unusual treat I picked up in the city’s famous Nishiki Market. I also bought an akebia fruit.

These fruits grow on wild vines in Japanese forests, and my trip to Kyoto in November was the first time I had ever seen them. It struck me as quite a coincidence because October was first time I ever heard of them, even after living in Japan for many years. Chalk it up to the darake effect.

The English word “akebia” – which is just a Latinized version of the Japanese word “akebi” – became part of my vocabulary when I read about the fruit in Kevin Short’s nature column. It probably would have been a fleeting part of my vocabulary if I had not encountered the real thing so soon after.

The fruit is a fleshy pod that splits itself open when ripe, revealing a mass of glistening, gelatinous pulp inside. You can eat it with a spoon, or just dive in face-first. I chose a spoon.

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According to Kevin Short, the “sweet pulp” is “downright delicious.” To my disappointment, the akebia I ate was almost completely flavorless. It was like eating paper.

The texture, however, was a little more interesting. The pulp was firm enough to hold its shape when I spread the rind open to get at it, and it continued to hold together as I dug in with my spoon. Once it was in my mouth, though, it felt softer than custard pudding – aside from the 30 or 40 hard black seeds in each bite. It turns out that, below the surface, there were more seeds than there was pulp. Fortunately, the pulp quickly turned into a near-liquid, and I was able to separate it from the seeds simply by straining it through my teeth. I spat the seeds out.

It was a lot of effort to obtain a small volume of edible matter from a fairly good-sized fruit. Considering that I had paid 500 yen for it, the cost-benefit ratio was rather unfavorable.

After the fact, I did some Internet research on akebia. According to Wikipedia, “Sweet but rather ‘insipid’ taste is probably an apt description.” I’d put more emphasis on the second of the two adjectives they used.

On the other hand, the gardening website Paghat.com had this to say: “When the pod first cracks open, it reveals what resembles a sack of insect or amphibian eggs. The sticky pulp is at that time at its sweetest, & very pleasant on the pallate [sic], reminiscent of a mild melon-flavored or guava-flavored tapioca.” It seems that Short and Paghat had better luck with their akebia than I had with mine. Even so, I’m not tempted to spend 500 yen for another shot at it.

However, Short’s column also contained this intriguing statement: “In most parts of Japan, the thick rinds are simply discarded, but in some parts of the Tohoku region, it is these rinds that are greatly prized. Here the pulp is discarded, as the rinds are packed with miso-flavored ground meat and various vegetables and fried to make sumptuous snacks that are eaten during the winter months.”

Hmm. If I ever see that on a menu, I may try akebia again after all.

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