One of Japan’s most curious fruits is the dekopon, a hybrid cross between the citrus fruits kiyomi and ponkan. Dekopon are sought after for their sweet flavour, large size, and characteristic bump on the top of the fruit, giving them a ‘sumo’ shape. Dekopons, known in American markets as Sumo Citrus, have become increasingly popular around the world thanks to a big following on Instagram.
What is a dekopon?
A dekopon is larger in size than a normal orange, seedless, and with a thick skin that peels easily. They lack albedo, the white netting that forms around other ctirus like mandarins. The variety was first grown in Japan using traditional breeding techniques (non-GMO) in the 1970s. Due to their difficulty in growing, dekopons are relatively expensive and sought-after, and are often given as gifts in Japan.
Japan has a culture of exclusive, designer fruits, like the dekopon, square watermelons and mangoes worth thousands of dollars. Find out about the world of expensive Japanese fruit here!
Growing a Dekopon
Growing a dekopon is a long and arduous process. Dekopon trees typically don’t start producing fruit until about 4 years after planting. When the fruits grow, they are so delicate that they require a form of clay sunscreen to shield them from the summer sun. Like other high-grade Japanese fruit, dekopons are strictly measured for size and sugar content, with only the best passing scrutiny going on sale.
The Dekopon Family Tree
A dekopon is a hybrid fruit, made up of a kiyomi and a ponkan. But for many people (myself included), those fruit names are equally unknown. What exactly are those ‘parent’ fruits? Let’s give them new family titles to make things a little easier to grasp, and take a look at the family tree of the dekopon.
Kiyomi – the ‘mother’
A kiyomi is a hybrid citrus itself, a cross between a Miyagawa Wase mikan and an orange. Kiyomis were bred first in 1949, and named after Seiken-ji temple and Kiyomi-gata lagoon in the Shizuoka city. Kiyomi are sweet, with an orange aroma, and is used more often for dekopon breeding than for individual sale.
Mikan – the ‘Grandmother’ (mother’s side)
A mikan is a popular variety of tangerine, also known as a citrus unshui. It originates from China, and grew in popularity in Japan after the 15th century. Up until 2013, the mikan was the most consumed fruit in Japan (eventually surpassed by the banana and apple). It is generally eaten as is, with the skin peeled from the top like a flower, but can also be grilled with the skin on (yakimikan), or even as a frozen snack.
Orange – the ‘Grandfather’, (mother’s side)
The grandfather of the dekopon is the sweet orange, which is a hybrid itself. That’s right, an orange is not a native fruit, but a cross between a pomelo and a mandarin. Oranges are grown all around the world, particularly in South America, South Africa and China. A relative is the bitter orange, which is grown in Spain.
Ponkan – the ‘father’
On the ponkan side of the dekopon family tree, a ponkan has the delicious nickname ‘Chinese honey orange.’ Like the sweet orange, a ponkan is a cross between a mandarin and a pomelo. Ponkans are very large and sweet, and can be so heavy that the tree branches sometimes need propping up!
Pomelo – the ‘Grandfather’, (father’s side)
The pomelo is a huge, pale green fruit related to a grapefruit, native to South-East Asia. It is the largest of the citrus fruits, with a thick rind and pinkish flesh. They are sweeter, milder and less juicy than a grapefruit, and can be found sold at South-East Asian markets served with salt (and sometimes chilli).
Mandarin – the ‘Grandmother’ (father’s side)
The mandarin, a small, oblate citrus, is a common fruit found worldwide. With a thin peel, sweet taste and easy to separate segments, mandarins are a classic of the citrus family.
The Sumo Citrus on Instagram
In the USA, the dekopon is marketed as a Sumo Citrus, because of their extra-large size, as well as the bump on the top that resembles a top knot. And of course, they originate from Japan!
The dekopon started trending on Instagram in 2019, after a long push to get the fruit to take off in the USA. In 2011, dekopons began to surface in Asian grocery stores and whole food markets in California, finding some popularity. Because of the delays in harvesting these fickle fruits, competitors didn’t get their dekopons onto shelves in large numbers until 2018. Huge displays were set up in the entrances of many supermarkets to sell them.
Instagram success arrived in 2019 with Eva Chen, fashion partnership director and author. Her stories about sumo citrus inspired the takeoff of the fruit’s popularity. Now, a search for dekopons on Instagram reveals juices, recipes, cocktails, farming, and much more.
I tried a dekopon for the first time recently, and found it to be not too dissimilar from a juicy, slightly sour mandarin. Did I get a sub-par sumo citrus? Have you ever tried a dekopon, and would you rate it as the best citrus ever? Let me know in the comments!