When people think of ponzu, the most common imagery that slips into their mind is a small bottle filled with a liquid seasoning similar in color to that of soy sauce. However, what many fail to realize is that this is not ponzu at all, and what they have actually done is confused the common household sauce ajipon with that of ponzu.
In actuality, true ponzu is made by combining brewed vinegar with citrus, and as such is naturally yellow in color.
So why the confusion? And where exactly does ajipon get its dark looks from?
The answer to that second question is simple: ajipon is made by mixing “tru ponzu” with soy sauce, and thus creating a cooking condiment that has both aji – 味 (flavor) and pon – ぽん (ponzu).
But to understand the confusion between the two, we need to take a quick dive into the history of the liquid itself.
Introduced to Nagasaki by the Dutch in the Edo period, ponzu was originally an alcoholic beverage made from fruit juices. In English, we know this popular party drink as punch, but as the Japanese were introduced to it through the Dutch, they incorporated the now-obsolete Dutch word ‘pons’ into their lexicon.
(Interestingly, the Japanese written form of ponzu with its kanji ending can give the impression that the liquid originated in Japan. However, the drink’s naturally sour taste and the inclusion of the kanji 酢 (su) – which means vinegar – was just a happy coincidence that allowed the word to fit perfectly into the Japanese language. In fact, it wasn’t until much later (during the 1960’s) that vinegar was even added to the liquid’s recipe.
) Overtime, the Japanese began to experiment with the liquid; using it as a cooking condiment instead of drinking it and mixing it with soy sauce, which thereafter led to the creation of a base for the commonly used ajipon we see listed as an ingredient in many recipes today. This soy-sauce-vinegared-fruit-punch hybrid quickly grew in popularity, and as it began to take a hold in the world of Japanese cuisine, it seems that “true ponzu” seemed to fade away from common memory.
Now, when the disappearance of true ponzu gave way to the widespread reach of ajipon, that should have been it right? Well that would have been the case, if it weren’t for the slow spread of information at the time.
You see, by the time ajipon as a physical product had reached every corner of Japan, people had long-since heard of the tart-tasting sour sauce known as ponzu – and assuming that’s what this liquid was – began to call it that by mistake. Hence why many people mistakenly refer to the brown colored condiment as ponzu.
These days, the confusion between ponzu and ajipon still exists, and is often a somewhat comedic cause of quarrels in the family home. This particular problem came to light back in 2019 when @ma5oto tweeted about his experience when he confused the two liquids on a shopping run:
My wife said “Please buy ponzu. Don’t make a mistake – Ponzu.”
So I bought it and came home with ponzu. But my wife was unhappy, because she had wanted ajipon, saying, “I should have explained in more detail, or I should have gone to buy it”
This must be a common mistake and I think it’s unreasonable.
The tweet itself led to interesting conversations on the topic of ponzu and ajipon confusion, with many sympathising with @ma5oto for this common mistake. It also led to a revival of sorts when it comes to drinking ponzu, which has become a bit of a hot topic amongst liquor lovers.
To further add to the confusion, Japan’s producer of both ponzu and ajipon Mizkan, have taken the interest in drinking ponzu as a hint to introduce a new product to the market – Ponzu Sour.
Much like the story of confusion between @ma5oto and his wife, Mizkan’s Ponzu Sour was also the result of a misunderstanding involving ponzu and ajipon. The drink came into being when an izakaya manager ordered ajipon, but was delivered ponzu by mistake. Instead of going through the trouble of returning the misdelivery, the manager devised a new way to use the condiment at his venue – and thus the Ponzu Sour was born.
A refreshing beverage, Ponzu Sour takes Mizkan’s ponzu, and mixes it with carbonated shochu. The resulting drink has been an immediate hit at the handful of izakayas that stock it, with fans labeling it as a beverage that brings with it a nostalgic atmosphere.
On the official website, Mizkan introduces how you can make ponzu sour at home and also includes a list of all the izakayas and restaurants you can grab a glass at. Alternatively, a canned version of the drink is available to pick up (for 190 yen - tax included) from Lawson stores nationwide.
Recognizing the value and impact that Ponzu Sour has had recently, Mizkan is now looking to work with venues to develop more nostalgic drinks involving ponzu.
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