This is a plant that can adorn your home or your plate.
Bladder cherry. Chinese lantern. Japanese lantern. Strawberry groundcherry. Winter cherry. What all of these terms have in common is that they each refer to the same tomato-like fruit surrounded with an easily identifiable bright red husk. Perhaps you have seen this plant used as a garnish, with its yellow berry similar to a tomatillo. But there is more to this ingredient, known in Japan as hozuki, than meets the eye.
Despite the variety of English names this fruit has, hozuki is easily recognized by the bright, tomato-red, lantern-shaped husk surrounding the edible berry inside, which turns golden-yellow when ready to eat. The vibrant colour that these plants possess makes them very attractive to the hordes of people who flock to Asakusa every year for the hozuki market held near Senso-ji temple. People have been going to this early August festival since the Edo period to get their hands on these plants, which are not unlike the giant lantern at the Kaminari-mon gate which welcomes visitors as they enter the marketplace. Visitors have the option to choose between cut hozuki plants or potted plants to bring home and cultivate for themselves.
According to legend, the first occurrence of this 200-year-old annual market took place after a servant in the home of a samurai had a dream where a god appeared and advised that eating the seeds of the hozuki would reduce irritation. The servant then awoke to the sight of 1,000 hozuki. Despite the vague advice, the story goes that the mysterious appearance of the hozuki the next morning marked the first hozuki market.
These plants are purchased not just to add a drop of colour to homes. They were originally cultivated for their medicinal properties: not only are they believed to reduce irritation as in the legend, but they are often used by modern-day pregnant women to reduce discomfort. They are also used as a part of the summer obon, an annual Buddhist custom that honours the spirits of ancestors. The seeds of the hozuki fruit are used as offerings to help the souls of the deceased find their way back to the afterlife.
Hozuki is most often enjoyed with salads or as a garnish, the golden-yellow hue of the berry and husk being the ideal finishing touch for late summer or autumn dishes. Waiting until the fruit appears golden-yellow is a must, as the unripe green berries are toxic if eaten. Ripened hozuki have a texture that is similar to a tomato, with a soft outer skin and watery flesh. Their flavour is slightly sweet, making them easy to incorporate into a number of dishes from sweet to savoury.