Strawberries: The gift that keeps on growing
When a Japanese person visits another person’s home, he or she traditionally brings a gift. The most common gift in such a situation is fruit. Recently, a friend came to our apartment for lunch and we bought strawberries, which was a dumb thing to do because it was more than likely that our friend was going to uphold this tradition and bring strawberries herself, since, right now, strawberries are the only fruit “in season,” basically because modern farming technology has made it possible for strawberries to be never out of season.
And, of course, she did bring strawberries; massive ones, in fact, which made the strawberries we purchased look puny in comparison. We had bought a package of the most popular type, otome from Tochigi Prefecture, which cost ¥398 for 300 grams. Our friend, however, had brought the more extravagant and topical amaou strain, grown in Fukuoka. We didn’t ask how much she paid, but we did ask if she ever bought this particular type of strawberry to eat at home. She said, “Of course not.” Later we went by the supermarket and checked out the price. Six amaou berries cost ¥680, about 300 grams. Further research uncovered organic strains of amaou for ¥888 (300 grams) and ¥598 (200 grams). Though strawberries are grown in 40 prefectures, mainly because it is almost always a guaranteed money maker (thanks, in part, to Chinese tourists who buy up a lot of expensive stawberries), Tochigi and Fukuoka are currently the two heavyweights, battling it out for berry dominance.
However, the king of luxury (kokyu) strawberries is a brand called Aiberry, which retails for ¥500 a pop. Aiberry is being touted as the 21st century equivalent of the cantaloupe, or “musk melon,” which was typically the go-to fruit when foreign media wanted to demonstrate the utter ridiculousness of high-priced Japanese food culture. And it is ridiculous, as illustrated by an online primer for potential Aiberry aficionados (presumably people who received them as gifts) on how best to appreciate the delights of this rare fruit, which is grown with fertilizer that utilizes decayed strawberries. (Does that count as cannibalism?) The instructions say you shouldn’t even wash the berries with water, since it might deplete the aroma. Just “blow on it” to get ride of any residue. Then you smell it, hold it up to the light to “enjoy the color,” say goodbye, and then slowly eat the berry one bite at a time (two to four mouthfuls), savoring not only the flavor (each part of the strawberry has a different grade of “sweetness”) but also the “structure.” When it’s over, you can even appreciate the aftertaste. And keep the box. You never know when it might come in handy for gift-giving.