Being Nouveau Riche, we have a bit of an obsession with Japanese culture and cuisine. After the big earthquake of 2011, we were awed at how the people of Japan handled everything with such dignity and stoic resilience. They just got on with it, rebuilding their ruined villages with the kind of efficiency and teamwork that many North Americans and Europeans could only dream of.
Unfortunately, news of the earthquake after-effects has all but dried up in mainstream media, which saddens us, so we thought we’d begin showcasing a few of their Nouveau Riche achievements in future issues; and for this article specifically, their reverence for very pricey and rare foods! So, without further ado, here are our top 5 picks for the most expensive foods in Japan:
1. Densuke Watermelon
A prized Japanese fruit, Densuke watermelons, have fetched big dollars in recent years. The average selling price is around $250, but one sold for nearly $4,000 at an auction in Sapporo, Japan, in June 2011, and they’ve bartered for even higher in previous years.
The smooth, round-shaped melon with its distinct black gourd (rind) looks quite like a bowling ball and grows up to 25 pounds. Grown exclusively on the island of Hokkaido, in Northern Japan, up to 10,000 Densuke watermelons are produced every year. I’ve never tried one, but it is said to have a crispy texture and extra sweet juices.
Unfortunately, only about a hundred watermelons are available on the first day it goes on sale each year; its rarity is why the prices can get so high. But if you can believe it, there’s another Japanese fruit that’s even more prized, one that has been officially labelled “the most expensive fruit in the world.” This brings us to our second pick as one of the most expensive foods in Japan.
2. Yubari Melon
Only 65 Yubari melons were produced in 2011, and one of them sold for a staggering $6,100 at the same Sapporo auction. In the past, one of these fruits was sold for $25,000!
Considered the be the ‘King of the Melons,’ these rare cantaloupes are farmed in greenhouses in Yubari, Hokkaido, a small town close to Sapporo, and are a hybrid of two other cantaloupe cultivars: Earl’s Favorite and Burpee’s Spicy Cantaloupe — we don’t know how or why they chose these names as they sure don’t sound Japanese, but we love their sense of humour!
The Yubari looks quite like a regular cantaloupe with its orange-reddish flesh, and for it to be top-grade, it has to be perfectly round and have an exceptionally smooth rind. Prized for its exceptional sweetness, juiciness and perfect symmetry, the high volcanic ash content in the soil is said to contribute to its unique taste.
Hand-picked and put through a strict grading system, the first harvest consistently garners the highest prices, with subsequent yields selling for anywhere between $100 and $500 in high-end stores. We knew that the Japanese liked their brands, but we had no idea it extended to fruit.
Some people present these melons as gifts during Chugen, an annual summer celebration when people give their superiors and acquaintances gifts. Can you imagine giving your boss a melon worth $25,000? We’re sorry, but if we’re buying that thing, we’re eating it straight to the rind – and don’t even think we’re going to share it with our colleagues, especially the ones we despise!
3. Kobe/Wagyu Beef
If you were a cow, wouldn’t you want to live your life in the utmost luxury, especially if you knew the inevitable was to happen? Well, I guess you could say that Wagyu cattle won the lottery (well, dairy cattle have won the lottery, but you know what we mean).
Wagyu cattle are raised in Kobe, Japan — hence the name “Kobe” beef — and are massaged regularly and fed top-grain and beer. (The Ritz of cattle farms!) This combination of genetics, diet, and handling of Wagyu cattle creates a melt-in-your-mouth tenderness; its high degree of marbling also adds to the succulence and depth of flavour.
The Japanese strive for quality rather than quantity. The extreme care and devotion are given to this unusual breed of cattle create a very high grade of beef, which is then sold for astronomical prices in Tokyo’s top restaurants.
Kobe beef has been enjoying extreme popularity for several years now, and many consider it to be the tastiest meat in the world, hence its moniker ‘the caviar of beef.’ You can now find it all over North America and Europe, and it is not uncommon to see burgers being sold for up to $50 in some restaurants, while an average carcass can cost up to $20,000.
This beef delicacy gives a whole new meaning to the term “Cash Cow,” if you ask me.
4. Matsutake Mushrooms
Maybe not the ‘King of Fungi’ (that honour goes to white truffles, in our opinion), Matsutake mushrooms could be referred to as the ‘King of Autumn Fungi’ as their season begins every September and lasts through January.
Also called “Pine Mushrooms” due to their association with certain types of pine trees, these fungi have a unique spicy-aromatic odour. In addition, they are loaded with protein and vitamins, which makes them high in demand in Japan.
However, since they’re so rare to find, they’re often imported from certain parts of North America and Asia and Northern Europe, making their prices so high. Subsequently, Japan is the biggest importer of Matsutake mushrooms and are willing to pay for this delicacy. As a result, prices can go up to $2,000 per kilogram at the beginning of the season when it’s at its highest grade, but the average value of imported Matsutake is about $85 per kilogram.
Primarily used in tempura dishes and soups and rice, the Japanese also give them to each other as gifts to symbolize happiness and fertility. So who needs magic mushrooms when you can get a hold of these, eh?
5. Bluefin Tuna
The most preferred fish by sushi lovers — in Japan at least — is the Bluefin tuna. In January 2011, a Bluefin caught in Hokkaido, Japan, was sold for a record-breaking $396,000 (that’s $527 per pound!) at Tokyo’s Tsukiji central fish market auction, making it the most expensive fish ever sold to date. Weighing in at 754 pounds, two restaurant owners bought it, one from a famous Hong Kong restaurant chain and a stylish Tokyo sushi bar, who split the cost — and the fish.
Known for its smooth, succulent, melt-in-the-mouth taste, the Bluefin is said to be extinct. There’s been quite a bit of controversy on the fishing practices associated with it. Still, if we had the opportunity to try Bluefin sashimi caught off the waters of Japan, we’re not going to lie; it would be hard to resist (but just one!). Ok, that was a lie. We’d have maybe two or three at most.
So, we want to know, which of these expensive foods in Japan would you spend your money on first?