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Buddha's Hand Citron

by David Karp

Fruits, Desserts, and Other Sweet Foods

Winter Volume: 1998 Issue: 5(4) page(s): 5 and 6

For over a millennium, the Chinese and Japanese have prized the bizarre Buddha's Hand Citron, which looks like a cross between a giant lemon and a squid, and can perfume a room for weeks with its mysterious fragrance. Normal citrons (Citrus medica L.) resemble big, rough lemons, their thick yellow rinds often used for candying. A hybrid, though some say a mutant form of this citrus, the Buddha's Hand (var. sarcodactylis), splits longitudinally at the end opposite the stem into segments that look remarkably like long thin gnarled human fingers. Some of the many more popular names for this oval-shaped fruit that can be as long at two hundred millimeters include Five Finger Mandarin (wu zhi gan), Fragrant Citron (xian yuan), and Fingered Citron (zhi yuan).

Scholars believe that sometime after the fourth century CE, Buddhist monks carried this graceful oddity from India to China, where it came to symbolize happiness, wealth and longevity. Chinese like to carry about the fo zhou gan in their hands, place it on tables in their homes, and present it as a sacrificial offering at temple altars. Artists classically depicted it in jade and ivory carvings, in prints, and on lacquered wood panels. Though esteemed chiefly for its exquisite form and aroma, the Buddha's Hand citron is also candied as a dessert, and prescribed as a stimulant, expectorant, and tonic in non-traditional medicine.

The golden fruit is especially popular at New Year's, for it is believed to bestow good fortune on a household. At year's end--the Japanese who call it bushukan, also buy it. They use it as a decorative ornament and place it on top of specially pounded rice cakes, or they use it in lieu of flowers in the home's sacred tokonomo alcove.

This fingered citron grows on a small spreading evergreen tree that reaches heights of three to five feet. It bears its main crop in winter, though it may produce a few fruits from "off blooms" throughout the year. American gardeners coddle the frost-sensitive tree as an ornamental and there are a few small-scale commercial growers in California who sell to flower shops and fancy food stores.

Some varieties of Buddha's Hand Citron have a sour pulp. some none at all, but cooks interested in exotica value the fruit for its aromatic peel. In the United States it has curried favor with western chefs. Gary Palm of The Mission Inn in Riverside, California chops up pieces of rind to add a slightly bitter citrus tinge to fish marinades. Lindsey Shere, pastry chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California uses the candied peel in Italian desserts, such as pane forte. Allan Susser of Chef Allen's in Adventura, Florida bakes pieces of candied rind in biscotti. It adds flavor that he describes as "kumquat-tangerine" which is distinct from the more lemony flavor of regular citrus.

Recipes for Buddha's Hand rarely appear in Chinese cookbooks, though a few do mention it. Your editor found it mentioned in the bible. She even used it once; and has added two recipes for it that follow the article. She also recommends half dried citron and half Chinese dried tangerine peel when fresh ones can not be located; and that can be all too often. She has also provided a more common recipe, Crispy Buddha's Hand, a visual reminder and used as such but hardly the real thing.

Buddha's Hand Citron was quite rare in America; but during the main season--from late fall to early spring, you might find a few at Balducci's (424 Sixth Avenue, New York NY 10011; phone: 212/673-2600) or at Monterey Market (1550 Hopkins Street, Berkeley Ca 92707; phone: (510/526-6042)) where they cost about ten dollars or more. In season, you can also order them from Cunningham Organic Farms, P.O. Box 1522 in Fallbrook CA 92088 (their phone is: 760/728-7343). If your garden is free from frost, you could buy your own dwarfed fingered citron tree for about twenty dollars from Roger Meyer's nursery (16531 Mt. Shelly Circle, Fountain Valley CA 92708; phone: 714/839-0796).
David Karp, who bills himself as the Fruit Detective, travels the world researching fruits and other foods. His articles appear in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and many other publications.
Chicken Rolls Steamed in Lotus Leaf
1 whole boneless chicken breast
1-2 Tablespoons Smithfield ham
2-4 Shiitake mushrooms, soaked for twenty minutes
1 small finger of Buddha's hand fruit, minced fine
2 lotus leaves, each cut into four pieces
1 teaspoon corn oil
1 scallion, minced fine
1 teaspoon ginger root, minced fine
1 Tablespoon Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1. Cut chicken, ham, and mushrooms into thin strips and put in a bowl, tossing them to distribute well. Mix in the minced Buddha's hand pieces.
2. Use half of the oil to brush the inside and outside surfaces of each leaf.
3. Mix the rest of the oil, scallion, ginger root, wine, and cornstarch well then mix thoroughly with the chicken mixture.
4. Put one eighth of the mixture on each lotus leaf section and roll putting the sealed end down on a plate.
5. Steam, on the plate, over boiling water for fifteen minutes, then move to a serving plate, garnish as desired, and serve.
Stewed Fruit and White Fungus
1 ounce dried white fungus
2 pieces rock sugar
2 cups apple, Chinese apple-pear, longans and other fruits, as desired
1 small finger of a Buddha's hand, minced fine
2 Tablespoons peeled and sliced almonds
1. Soak the white fungus for one hour and then remove any hard pieces. Cut it into one-inch sections.
2. Bring two cups of water to the boil, add the white fungus, lower the heat and simmer for thirty minutes. Drain, rinse with cold water, and set aside.
3. Put the sugar in a small bag and crush it with the back end of the cleaver until the chunks are very small.
4. Dice the fruits into one to two inch cubes and put them and all other ingredients into a heat-proof serving bowl. Mix them well.
5. Bring half cup of water to the boil and pour over the fruit mixture, then place it in a steamer and steam over boiling water for half an hour. Then serve.
Crispy Mock Buddha's Hand
1/2 pound ground pork
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon rice wine
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 slice fresh ginger, minced fine
1 scallion, minced fine
2 eggs, beaten
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon flour
1 cup corn oil
1. Mix pork, cornstarch, salt, wine, sesame oil, ginger, scallion, and one tablespoon of water. Divide the meat mixture into four portions.
2. Mix eggs, the other tablespoon cornstarch, and rest of the salt. 3. Lightly oil a frying pan and pour in half the egg batter. when set turn the omelette over for a minute, then remove to a plate. Repeat with the remaining egg mixture. Then cut each omelette in half.
4. Mix flour with a teaspoon of water to make a thick paste, spread on the edges of each omelette, and roll a portion of the meat mixture into a one-inch thick roll.
5. Cut four cuts into each roll leaving the fifth section a bit thicker than the other four. Slightly spread apart all sections, the fifth section even more so, but do not detach it (it is the thumb). Repeat making the other three hands.
6. Heat oil in a deep pot or wok and fry the hands for five minutes turning them gently after the first minute or two. Place them on a plate spreading the fingers slightly to resemble a Buddha's Hand. Serve, with hot sauce or plum sauce, if desired.

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