In the first spring of the pandemic, with our world shrunk to the borders of our apartment, my husband ordered three dozen Ataulfo mangoes. Harvested in Mexico, they arrived a pale, sea-foam green and shaded first to lemon, then butter. Every morning the kitchen seemed to grow brighter. It was as if three dozen solar systems had been divested of their suns and that bounty brought to us. They ripened slowly and then all at once, and by the end we were each eating two a day, almost tipsy, the musky mangoes surrendering like ice cream.
Of the world’s botanical gifts, fruit is surely among the most exuberant in its pleasures. But fruit can also be the most disappointing when it falls short of that promise. Maybe I expect too much of it. I was the kid (or so Mom says) with a face stained from cramming too many cherries into my mouth, greedy for joy.
I want to bite into an apple and think of mountain air so clean and sharp that it could cut you. I dream of a strawberry like a small heart, heavy and full, its unabashed red a testament to vigilance and a perfectly timed pluck off the vine. I long for sun-glutted peaches and oranges that have true weight in the hand and blueberries the color of deep ocean where the light is swallowed up. Living in New York City, what I get, more often than not, is fruit that’s just fine. Full of nutrients and sweet enough. We can’t all live in climates that yield everyday glories. (I still remember a chicozapote I ate in Mexico that tasted like caramel taken to the edge, just shy of burning.) And so at home I tend to eat fruit absent-mindedly and sometimes merely dutifully, without particular reverence or rejoicing.
I was not prepared, then, for the wonder that is the fruit sandwich. I did not even know that such a thing existed until I saw it a few years ago on the menu of a tiny Japanese cafe on the Lower East Side, then run by Yudai Kanayama, a native of Hokkaido. It came to the table on wax paper, not a dainty tea sandwich that I could hold with just the tips of my fingers but two triangles as thick as cake and tilted upward to show off their insides: fat strawberries, a golden orb of canned peach and green kiwi with black ellipses of seeds.
The fruit was engulfed in whipped cream mixed with yogurt for more body. This was implausibly airy yet dense; in Japanese, the texture is called fuwa-fuwa, fluffy like a cloud. Pressed on either side were crustless slices of shokupan, soft milk bread that sinks and agreeably springs back, evoking the squishy white bread of an American childhood, but richer and more resilient.
In Japan, an island nation where land for crops is limited, fruit is treated as a luxury. Entire stores are devoted to tenderly cultivated specimens, from giant Ruby Roman grapes, each weighing at least 20 grams — nearly a fifth of that sugar — to Bijin-hime (beautiful princess) strawberries the size of a baby’s fist, only about 500 grown each year and one of which sold at auction for 50,000 yen (around $468) in 2020.
The origins of the fruit sandwich are believed to go back to the fruit parlors attached to these stores, where customers could sample the wares. Now they’re served at konbini (convenience stores) and embedded with strawberries cut into tulips and kiwis for stems. Kanayama, a restaurateur who survived the pandemic by building fogged-plexiglass table dividers and outdoor dining huts for other restaurants (his own properties in downtown Manhattan include the Izakaya NYC and Dr Clark), developed his version from memories of a sandwich shop in his hometown, Sapporo. These days, he makes it with mascarpone instead of yogurt, to give it extra creaminess.
The fruit sandwich looks like dessert but isn’t, or not exactly. At the same time it confounds Western notions of what a sandwich should be. One friend I tried to explain it to was mystified: Why bread? Why not just eat fruit and cream? But that’s the fun, I said. The bread frames fresh fruit as a marquee ingredient in a way savory dishes rarely do, making it new. It takes what might otherwise be ad hoc (a peach eaten over the sink, a banana grabbed en route to the subway) and organizes it into a tidy dish unto itself — a lovely little meal that feels slightly illicit, as if for a moment there are no rules.
Recipe: Fruit Sandwich