Plant Based Rarities - Raw Haute Cuisine As Premium And Prestigious As It Can Ever Get

Plant-based ‘haute cuisine’ is becoming ever more popular, with food connoisseurs worldwide willing to pay higher prices for luxury fruit. From square-shaped watermelons to grapes that cost $365 apiece, we travel to Japan to discover its newest breed of experimental delicacies and to find out what the craze is about.

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Strawberries are red, right? Unless you happen to be in Japan. Meet Shiroi Houseki or the Japanese ‘White Jewel’ of the Saga Prefecture on Kyushu Island. This grandiose white strawberry weighs about 50g and costs $10 apiece. Aside from its size, the reason why this super berry costs so much is because only 10% of its crop remain white after slow and controlled sun exposure.

Surprisingly, they’re not genetically modified - the strawberry farmer Yasuhito Teshima discovered his White Jewel after years of careful cross-breeding and experimentation. These strawberries simply lack in anthocyanin, the chemical that’s responsible for giving a distinctive color to plants, fruit, and vegetables. As Teshima has discovered for himself, crossbreeding can still produce amazing plant-based hybrids without tampering with nature and our organisms.

In fact, most of the Japanese fruit on the list of the most luxurious fruits in the world are not genetically modified. Even the Japanese square watermelon, sold at $100-200 apiece in Tokyo (or as much as $800 in Moscow’s high-end supermarkets). Each individual watermelon is enclosed in a metal box in the early days of the harvest. As it matures, the watermelon grows into the square shape. But it’s not as simple as ‘leaving it to do its thing’. As the watermelon farmers from the Shikoku island explain, these fruit need as much attention as a newborn. Each watermelon is checked more than once on a daily basis to ensure that the stripes grow perfectly vertical and there are no cracks.  

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Despite all the attention that it gets, the square watermelon is not known for its flavor. In fact, it’s pretty much inedible. Then again, the flavor was never high on the priority list for the farmers of this fruit. The original intention of growing a square watermelon was to improve its shipping and storage - the dimensions of the square are a perfect fit for most standard Japanese refrigerator shelves. But once it’s filled the mold of the perfect square, the watermelon is not actually ripe yet. What’s the use of an inedible watermelon, you may ask? Well, it makes a pretty decent living as an ornamental feature, with a shelf-life of about a year. Just in time for the next harvest.

Naturally, in a country like Japan, there’s more than one luxury watermelon. Each year only 100 of their most exclusive Densuke watermelons are harvested and sold. In 2014, one of these babies earned its farmers a whopping $6,000, according to the Toronto Star. Grown only on the northern island of Hokkaido, their signature stripeless black rind is known to food experts worldwide. And as opposed to its cousin the square watermelon, the Densuke is actually edible and prides itself for its sweet and perfect flavor.

That’s enough watermelons for one day - let’s now move onto grapes. But not just any grapes. These are Ruby Roman grapes from Ishikawa Prefecture. The Telegraph reports that, as of last July, these grapes are world record holders for ‘the most expensive bunch of grapes sold at a wholesale auction in Japan.’ During an auction in Kanazawa, 30 Ruby Roman grapes were sold for a staggering 1.1 million yen (about $365 for a single grape). Each grape weighs about 20 grams and resembles a ping-pong ball in size.

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The lucky bidder was Takamaru Konishi, a regular buyer of premium fruits who owns a supermarket at Hyogo Prefecture. His intention behind buying these grapes goes hand in hand with the Japanese tradition of gift-giving in which luxury fruit plays a major role. Konishi planned to host a free tasting event for his best customers as a show of courtesy and good business. That’s because, in Japan, gifts are not reserved only for birthdays, anniversaries or special occasions. While those are important, gift-giving is seen as a way to extend the courtesy. Gifts are a particularly important component in the Japanese business etiquette, and the Japanese also have two gift-giving seasons a year.

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What’s more, the thoughtfulness of the presentation is often more important than the present itself. Fruit, along with other food items like tea, play an important part in this ritual of giving in Japan. Mr. Oshima, the owner of Senbikiya, the most expensive fruit shop in the world, specializes in selling luxury fruit as gifts. "So it really needs to look good,” he says in an interview with the BBC. “The appearance is a very important part of it." In other words, finding the perfectly-shaped fruit and offering it to someone dear or important as a gift is the best way to show your appreciation to them.

Whether you find yourself in Japan or not, there’s something to take from the Japanese gift-giving practices. These foodie traditions can spark some great travel adventures. Instead of the usual Christmas jumper, why not get your loved one a Densuke watermelon or a Ruby Roman grape instead? It’s just as fleeting as the moment it’s given - and is sure to taste just as sweet.