The mysterious purple fruit known as Akebi grows deep in the mountainous forests of Japan. From its appearance and taste to its traditional uses in Japanese cuisine and history, we will uncover all there is to know about this fascinating fruit.
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What is an Akebi?
Akebi (pronounced ah-KEH-bee) is a strange fruit native to Japan and other parts of East Asia, including China and Korea. Akebi is also known as the chocolate vine, five-leaf Akebia, Akebia fruit, or thorny vine.
Akebi is part of the Lardizabalaceae family and has a unique appearance, with a long, cylindrical shape typically about 10-15 cm (4-6 inches) in length and deep purple skin.
The fruit is oblong or elongated in shape and has a tough, fibrous outer skin that is usually purple or reddish-brown. Inside this purple pod, the fruit is filled with a soft, jelly-like pulp that is translucent and has a sweet, slightly tart flavor. The pulp contains numerous tiny, edible black seeds that add a crunch to the fruit’s texture.
Akebi fruit is typically harvested in the late summer and early fall. It can be eaten fresh or used in various culinary applications, such as in jams, jellies, or desserts. The fruit is also used in traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine for its purported health benefits, which include improving digestion, boosting the immune system, and reducing inflammation.
In addition to its edible fruit, Akebi is also valued for its ornamental qualities. The vine can climb walls, fences, or trellises, producing clusters of delicate flowers in the spring and early summer.
The most common type of Akebia include:
- Akebia quinata – Chocolate vine or five-leaf Akebia
- Akebia trifoliata -Three-leaf akebia
The History of Akebi
The Purple Akebi fruit is an integral part of the Tohoku diet, a region in Northern Japan where the fruit was discovered and still grows naturally in the mountains. Before sugar became widely available, people in the Tohoku region ate this fruit as a sweet snack while foraging for mushrooms in the forests.
They also used the Akebia vines of the plant to make bags and baskets. The fruit seeds were used to make oils and herbal medicines that had diuretic, antiseptic, and cold-fighting properties.
Purple Akebi was even used as an offering on altars. It was believed to carry the spirits of ancestors in the Buddhist festival of Obon, which takes place in the Yamagata prefecture).
While the wild variety has existed since ancient times, the commercially cultivated type has only been available for a few decades, primarily in Japan, China, and Korea. It is distributed on a much smaller scale in Europe, the US, and New Zealand.
What Does Akebi Taste Like?
The taste of Akebi is sweet and slightly tart, with a flavor similar to a combination of strawberry, passionfruit, kiwi, and banana.
When eaten raw, the fruit has a crunchy texture, and the flesh is juicy and refreshing. The taste is sweet and slightly acidic, similar to a cross between a grape and a watermelon. The flesh of the fruit is similar in texture to lychee.
Akebi can also be cooked and used in a variety of dishes. When cooked, the flavor becomes more concentrated, and the texture becomes softer. The fruit can be boiled, stir-fried, or used in desserts such as jams and jellies.
How to Tell When Akebi is Ripe
Here are some tips on how to tell when Akebi is ripe and how to select the best fruit when shopping for one:
|Akebi turns a deep purple color when it is ripe. The skin should be slightly soft to the touch and have a glossy appearance.
|Ripe Akebi is typically about 4-6 inches long and 2-3 inches in diameter.
|The fruit should feel slightly soft when squeezed but not mushy.
|Ripe Akebi has a sweet, floral fragrance. If the fruit doesn’t smell very fragrant, it most likely is unripe.
Selecting the Best Akebi
- Look for deep purple fruit with slightly soft skin and a glossy appearance. Avoid Akebi that has bruises, blemishes, or is too soft to the touch.
- Check the weight of the fruit; it should feel heavy for its size, indicating that it has high water content and is juicy.
- Akebi is often sold in clusters, so choose a cluster where the fruits are of similar size and color.
- Give the Akebi a gentle shake; ripe fruit should rattle slightly inside the skin.
- Akebi is a seasonal fruit and is best eaten when fresh.
Are Akebi Fruits or Vegetables?
Akebi is definitively a type of fruit. While they are fruit, their taste is not overly sweet, and they have a slightly savory flavor, which may make them seem more like a vegetable.
Akebi fruits are commonly used in savory Japanese dishes, such as salads, or as a filling for sushi. However, they can also be eaten alone or used in sweet dishes like jams and desserts.
Can I Eat Raw Akebi?
It is generally safe to eat raw Akebi fruit, but there are some precautions you should take.
First, ensure you are eating the right part of the plant. The edible portion of the Akebi plant is the fruit, a soft, pulpy pod containing tiny, edible seeds.
Second, be sure to wash the fruit thoroughly before eating it. Akebi fruit grows on a vine and may be exposed to dirt and other contaminants during the growing process.
Finally, some people may be allergic to Akebi fruit or experience digestive discomfort after eating it. If you have not eaten Akebi before, starting with a small amount is a good idea to see how your body reacts before consuming more.
Cooking with Akebi
Akebi is relatively easy to prepare; follow these simple steps:
- Start by washing the fruit thoroughly under running water.
- Cut off the stem and slice the fruit in half lengthwise.
- Using a spoon, scoop out the flesh and discard the seeds and any remaining pulp. Depending on the recipe, the flesh can then be sliced, diced, or pureed.
Akebi is commonly used in traditional Japanese cuisine, particularly in Japan’s Kansai and Tohoku regions. It is often used in both sweet and savory dishes.
One popular dish that features Akebi is the traditional Japanese soup, Oden. Akebi is added to the soup, with other ingredients such as daikon radish, boiled eggs, and fish cakes. Another popular dish is Akebi Soba, a noodle soup made with buckwheat noodles and Akebi slices. Sauteed Japanese Akebi (Miso Itame) is also popular and enjoyed by tourists and locals.
In addition to soups and noodles, Akebi is also used in desserts such as Akebi Jelly, made by pureeing the fruit and mixing it with sugar and gelatin to create a sweet, jelly-like texture. It is also often used in smoothies and fruit salads (together with other fruit like guava, pomegranate, and lemon juice)
How to Store Akebi
If Akebi doesn’t have cracked skin, store it in the fridge for 2-3 days until it cracks. Then once the fruit seems perfectly ripe, you can keep it in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Since Akebi can become overripe quickly, it’s not the best idea to store it at room temperature.
Akebi can also be frozen if you want to store it for an extended period. Just freeze the cut-out pieces in a freezer-safe container, leaving room for expansion. Frozen Akebi can last up to six months.
Health Benefits of Akebi
In traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine, Akebia was widely used for pain relief (analgesic) and to promote urine flow (diuretic). People also used it to treat conditions like diabetes, colds, amenorrhea, hernia, fatigue, headaches, rheumatism, and stomach issues. It was considered a natural antibiotic.
Today, it’s still used for these same health benefits. Aside from this, Akebia helps to regulate menstrual cycles and can induce menstruation. Some sources have shown that this herb may have anti-tumor properties and can help prevent breast and digestive tract tumors. It also helps to strengthen the body and reduce feelings of weakness.
Akebia Quinata is high in potassium, essential for good heart contractions and water regulation. Thanks to its vitamin C content, it can lower fevers and treat colds and mouth sores.
Where to Purchase Akebi
If you want to purchase Akebi, the best time to find it is in the late summer and early fall months. The fruit is typically harvested from August to October.
In terms of where to find Akebi, it may be difficult to find in regular grocery stores, but specialty Asian markets or farmers’ markets may carry it. You can also search online for specialty stores selling Japanese or Asian fruits. Some online retailers may ship Akebi directly to your home.