JAPANESE BIWA – HOW TO EAT LOQUAT
HISTORY OF JAPANESE BIWA
The first time I came across Biwa was at a Japanese sweets shop in North Osaka during the summertime. Neatly stacked on the glass showcase were a series of clear, dome-shaped packages with a single orange globe suspended inside. The shop attendant described the dessert as delicate orange fruit suspended in jelly. With the sub-tropical temperature and humidity pushing the limits of human comfort this dessert came with a promise to cool and refresh the body. As always, there are varying degrees of quality with the worst tasting like canned fruit from the 70’s and the best like the very best Biwa you will ever taste. Taneya is a consistently high quality producer of the Biwa Jelly and can be found in high-end department stores in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.
Looking like a fruit straight out of a still life painting from a turn of the century master, Biwa has an attractive faded orange skin with a curling stem at its top. While the English name for the fruit is LOQUAT, which derives from the Cantonese pronounciation of the characters 枇杷 – the Japanese name is BIWA 枇杷 – a name which conjures up exotic images of the BIWA (琵琶), a Japanese lute of Chinese origin which is rarely seen in contemporary Japan. The shape of both the fruit and the leaves of the BIWA tree share similarities to the bodies of the ancient instrument.
Its taste is somewhere between grape, melon and lemon Japanese Biwa is distinctly pear shaped – somewhat tear-shaped with a top stem a navel shaped bottom. Today, Japan is the world’s leading producer of loquats ahead of Israel and Brazil.
GROWING JAPANESE BIWA
This unusual fruit originated in the mountains of Southeastern China. Today it can be found across the world including in Japan. The plant is an evergreen, large shrub or small tree and named botanically as Eriobotrya Japonica. Loquats are unusual among fruit trees in that the flowers appear in the autumn or early winter, and the fruits are ripe in late winter or early spring. Its autumn flowers are 2 cm (1 in) in diameter, ivory and has five petals. The flowers have a sweet, intoxicating aroma that can be identified from a considerable distance. Loquat fruits begin appearing in the trees by the end of winter season and mature fruits are ready to harvest in early June in Japan. When ripe the fruits are pear in shape, appear in bunches of 5-20, and measure about 3-5 cm in length.
The best tasting fruits are always allowed to ripen on the tree before harvesting. Ripe fruits have soft, juicy flesh below the thin fuzzy skin that is yellowish/ orange in color. Each fruit contains 3-5 large, brown seeds at its core. The seeds are inedible, and may contain toxic cyanogen-glycosides. Unlike an apple the core of the biwa is soft.
VARIETIES OF JAPANESE BIWA
In the mid-19th century a woman named Miura Shio, a resident of Nagasaki managed to get Biwa seeds which had been imported from China which she proceeded to plant. The trees which grew produced much larger and much better tasting fruit than any BIWA which had ever been grown before in Japan. This variety was called Motegi, after the village in which it was first propagated. A Meiji Period botanist, Dr. Tanaka Yoshio, came across the MOTEGI BIWA on a visit to Nagasaki and returned to Tokyo with some seeds. Planted near what is now Tokyo University in Hogo, Tokyo a new variety produced from his trees and larger than the original MOTEGI were thereafter called TANAKA BIWA. Today across Japan two varieties- the smaller MOTEGI from Nagasaki, and the larger TANAKA from Chiba are available for purchase with the latter commanding a premium price.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF JAPANESE BIWA
Succulent, tangy and sweet, wonderfully delicious – learning how to eat loquat fruit that is rich in vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidants is a pleasurable chore.
Biwas are surprisingly very low in calories with just 47 calories per 100g. It is typical of Japanese desserts to be low in fat and calories and this fruit is no exception. Biwas are also rich in insoluble dietary fiber and importantly, pectin. Pectin acts to retain moisture in the colon which makes it behave like a laxative. Pectin has also been shown to reduce blood cholesterol. Loquat fruit is an excellent source of vitamin-A providing the body with 51% of its daily recommended levels. In the body Vitamin A acts to maintain the integrity of both mucus membranes and skin. Lab studies have shown that consumption of natural fruits rich in vitamin-A, and flavonoids helps to protect from lung and oral cavity cancers. In summary the Biwa is low in saturated fat and sodium, and is high in vitamin A, dietary fiber, potassium, and manganese.
As good as the flesh of Biwa is for the body, its seeds need to avoided. Biwa seeds contain many toxic alkaloids like cyanogen-glycosides which when consumed can cause possible life-threatening symptoms like vomiting, breathlessness, and in rare cases death. When eating Biwa you are strongly advised to avoid chewing seeds and should one be eaten by accident consult a medical professional immediately. By simply preparing the Biwa ahead of serving as will be outlined below, any dangers can be easily avoided by the removal of the seeds.
In Japan, Biwa leaves are dried to make a mild beverage known as biwa cha by brewing them using the traditional Japanese Senjiru Method. Biwa cha is thought to beautify and heal inflammatory skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema as well as relieving chronic respiratory conditions such as bronchitis. Eaten in considerable quantities Biwa will have a gentle but noticeable sedative effect, lasting up to 24 hours.
HOW TO BUY JAPANESE BIWA
Biwa season begins in early June in Japan. Fruits are ready for harvesting once their skin turns yellow and their flesh become soft in texture. A light squeeze can determine the ripeness of the Biwa. The fruits should be carefully picked up from the bunch to avoid bruising. When shopping at a store look for Biwa featuring a bright orange color with a smooth surface and a mild, sweet aroma. Don’t be afraid to smell it as this is one of the most reliable ways to gauge a fruit’s ripeness. They should be devoid of any wrinkles, cuts and patches on the skin. Fruits with spots and bruises tend to spoil quickly. The Biwa is at its sweetest when soft and orange without blemishes.
HOW TO STORE JAPANESE BIWA
Biwas bruise easily and are best stored in a protective container with its own leaves away from light. They should be eaten as quickly as possible after picking. Biwa keep well for up to two weeks in the fruit/vegetable compartment of a refrigerator but will always taste better picked ripe off the tree and eaten or cooked the first day.
JAPANESE BIWA – HOW TO EAT LOQUAT
When ripe the peels come off easily with the edge of a knife. From that point you can take one of two approaches. Either peel the flesh with a knife 2-3 cm deep and leaving the centre seeds in place – or cut in half and remove the interior with a melon ball tool. Either method will get you what you want – the flesh without skin or seeds. The waste ratio, however, is 30 percent or more due to the seed size.
COOKING JAPANESE BIWA
Wash Biwa under cool water before consuming to remove any surface dirt or pesticide residues. The pulp just underneath the skin is sweeter than its central tart pulp. The skin of the Biwa can be easily peeled when it is ripe. The only time you will want underripe Biwa is if you are making jam. In this case blanche the Biwa for a 20-30 seconds in boiling water then plunge immediately in ice water. The skins should be easy to remove at that stage.
RECIPES FOR JAPANESE BIWA
Peeled fruits are eaten fresh or mixed with other tropical fruits in a simple fruit salad.
Loquat fruit is also made into jam, jelly and poached in sugar syrup with cinnamon to make delicious loquat fruit syrup.
The loquat has a high sugar, acid, and pectin content. High pectin makes Biwa a great candidate for making jam, jelly, and chutney.
Firm, slightly immature fruits are best for making pies or tarts and can be substituted for apple, pear or apricot in your recipes.
The fruit is also processed into confectioneries.
Loquats are abundant in Pakistan, from Islamabad north, during the month of April, where the sour unripe fruit are used to make chutneys and sauces.