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Chinese Olives and Their Leaves

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Spring Volume: 2015 Issue: 22(1) page(s): 37


Canarium album and Canarium pimela are white and black olives, respectively, belonging to the Burseraceae family and not the Olea or olive family. These olives are Olea europaea family; more common in Italy and other European countries.

Everyone should be able to tell them apart by the pits as they are very different. Both have been used as medicine in many places and at different times, both fruits grow on trees of different genus and species. The pit of the Chinese olive has very pointed ends as can be seen in the picture.

These Canarium are esteemed in China and japan, are tropical fruits whose flesh is processed and then used to caulk boats and make torches. The Chinese olive is used as anti-aging medicine and as an antibiotic. We found the literature inconclusive, some of it even conflicting. That may be because much of it was done on rats while clinical efforts in man seems to be in short supply. Many we spoke to think of their oleoresins as best used for incense and adhesives.

Called gai lan in Chinese, the unprocessed fruit of both olives have double the anti-oxidant capacity of green tea, four hundred times more of vitamin C. The Chinese olives are a completely different genus and species than the Mediterranean olives. A few folk told us they are really known as ‘foreign olives.’ In many items of literature, there were no assurances as to which olive the researchers were actually discussing or researching.

Not a new fruit nor an herbal, most folk were unaware that both leaves and fruit were and are used in China for food and health. We read that the leaves of the Middle Eastern tree were used as a cure in ancient times; and they have appeared in recent resources touting their ability to reduce blood pressure, treat Lyme disease, and help with blood sugar balance.

The Chinese olive can be blue-green and known as qing guo, yellow and known as huang lan or white and called bai lan. Fresh or dried, the Chinese tout them for reducing fever, lowering poisoning from excessive alcohol, improving insulin sensitivity, and benefitting the throat, among other uses. The Chinese olive pit is recognized as having pointed ends sometimes used as tooth picks.

As an herbal, they are recommended to singers in capsule, powder, or leaf form in conjunction with green tea. In most of them we have seen then sold in tea bags with tea leaves. A TCM practitioner in one place did recommend me not to drink the tea very hot because that would reduce its health value.

We did see olive leaves dried in several herbal emporia, but only had them fresh once and that was after ordering them from a Chinese menu in a Manhattan eatery. It was Ollie’s Restaurant on 42nd Street west of Ninth Avenue. There, they prepared them with fresh asparagus that were cut into short lengths. We did order them, and everyone at our table liked them. They were not bitter as we were told they can be when used in large amounts or with large leaves.

After ordering and eating them, we again spoke to a TCM practitioner who said he has never had them in the United States, but often did eat them dried or fresh in China and in Taiwan. He told us that olives are esteemed and eaten in quantity in China and Japan. He recommends them after steeping the fresh fruit for some minutes in boiling water. He has seen them canned and packed in salt water, the white or yellow ones used more often as a snack or condiment than as an herbal. He added that as to the leaves, he has only seen them in Asian herbal stores. When asked to comment on them, he said he finds the fruit less oily and saltier than most fleshy fruits and less oily than European olives.

He went on to tell us that he recommends the fruit for fever, bleeding, chronic cough, for hangovers, and for those with infected sores. He likes to dry the Chinese olive in the sun for a day or two, then pack them in a pottery jar covered with coarse salt. He tells us that doing so, he has them year round for his patients When fresh, he says many Chinese serve them pickled in salt or in honey, some even put them in a dish called Fried Milk, or in wine or liqueur. He then sent on to tell us to go to a market to purchase some either way; and we did. The salted ones we thought were too salty; they needed soaking with several changes of water. The ones in honey were very good when making fried milk. He did say he would go to Ollie’s and learn where they get fresh leaves and hopefully get some himself. We have yet to meet up with him again.

                                                                                                                                                       
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