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Peach: A Most Classical Fruit
Fruits, Desserts, and Other Sweet Foods
Spring Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(1) page(s): 5 and 26
Any list of the classical fruits of China should begin with the peach. Native to China, particularly to northern and western areas, peaches, peach wood, and peach flowers have been venerated in China for thousands of years. They were mentioned in the Chinese literature of the sixth century BCE. Pits and other archeological remains found and dated circa 5,000 BCE confirm origins in the north and western regions of China and Tibet.
Varieties newer than the birth of Christ such as the peaches of Samarkand, the size of large goose eggs, were successfully transplanted in Imperial orchards in the city of Xian in Tang Dynasty times (907 to 907 CE). During the Sung Dynasty (960 to 1279 CE), both white and yellow peaches were popular. They and all fruits were much more common elements of the diet than they are today, particularly among the wealthy.
Peaches appear in many religious rites, though never as sacrifices, and you will find them on the altars of family shrines. Dating from about 1250 CE, peaches were so popular they even appeared in plays. It is interesting to note that and how they were appreciated therein. In one play, a vendor selling them to the characters on stage calls out: "Half-sour soft peaches skewered just right." They were one of many fruits he had for sale.
Today, peaches are grown in both the north and the south of China. They are found growing and are consumed in almost every region except a few southwestern areas. And, though still popular and still adored, fewer are consumed than in earlier times and no one knows why.
These one stone or pit fruits have values symbolic and magical as well as nutritional to the Chinese. They were an ancient symbol of fertility and it is said that they had and still have magical powers. The Chinese believe the peach is an omen. No wonder, its name, tao fu, means omen; it also means wood.
The presence of the peach in folklore, literature, religion, paintings, embroidery, and in the affection of the people signifies luck, abundance, and protection. The fruit is believed to offer immortality or at least reaching very old age. Many a peach, illustratively speaking, is found in the hand of an elder or a Buddha.
The wood of the peach tree is used for amulets and when worn around the neck, the peach pit is thought to drive off lurking demons. Peach flowers have interesting uses, too. They represent beauty in paintings and embroideries. The flowers and the fruit make foods taste and look beautiful, they even enhance sour foods such as when making vinegar. This fruit is very popular, even at the most auspicious holiday. It is used for New Year decorations.
In general, this fruit can be round or somewhat egg-shaped coming to a point on the bottom. The surface can be smooth, but more commonly it is covered with fine hairs. The exterior is dark green when immature and brightens to the color that bears this fruit's name when fully ripe. The flesh inside is juicy and covered with a network of veins. The stone or pit has a kernel inside that is prized for its medicinal qualities.
Peaches, be they Prunus persica, the common peach we are familiar with or the long thin fairy peach which is really a member of the Pouteria family, is eaten in various stages of ripeness in China. There, it is not uncommon to serve them somewhat green. Westerners might think this strange not realizing that a bit of pucker mixed with the almost sweet nature of the fruit is considered desirable.
Peaches are eaten dried, pickled, salted, candied, honeyed, and sometimes even just fresh and ripe. When drying them, the Chinese prefer fleshy yellow varieties. For pickling, they say that the smaller ones do better, and when canning them, everyone agrees that firm texture is as important as is an attractive appearance. Peaches are made into purees for sweetening meats, baby foods use them this way, and the puree is dried as a leather and eaten as a snack.
Truth be told, the Chinese prefer theirs slightly under ripe, slightly sour, and somewhat pithy. The first time we visited China some twenty-plus years ago, formal introductions at schools and factories began with everyone sitting around a table stocked and stacked. On it were one or more thermoses of tea, lots of cookies, and towers of green fruit, some apples, others soon to be ripe green peaches. The first bite was strange, but most agreed that the mix of sweet and tart was a refreshing thirst quencher.
The Chinese call two other fruits 'peach.' One is the Hainan cat-tail peach, called Hainan pu tao. This fruit is botanically known as Syzygium cumini and is not a member of the Prunus or Pouteria families. It is a small fruit that more closely resembles an olive than a peach. The other peach is tao and really the Chinese gooseberry. We now know this fruit as the kiwi fruit; its botanical name is Actinidia chinensis. In China, it is known as the Monkey peach or mi hou tao.
In the yin-yang dichotomy, the flesh of true peaches are considered warming. The kernel inside the stone is neither warming nor cooling. Its taste is bitter and you need to know that eating many of them can be poisonous, particularly for children, the elderly, and the infirm. Chinese medical doctors, when prescribing these kernels, advise using them in very limited quantities. They use them because they believe that this nut or kernel strengthens qi, clears internal congealed blood, benefits the intestines, and treats uterine fibroids.
Chinese Medical doctors recommend the flesh, too, for gastrointestinal inflammations. Its sweet-sour flavor is also thought to moisten lungs and intestines, be helpful for dry coughs and other dry conditions, and useful for reducing high blood pressure. The sour astringent component of this fruit's flesh is also valued for tightening tissues and smoothing skin, causing limited sweating, and activating the blood. Peaches were taken as food and trade by caravan drivers trekking along the old silk routes to Persia. They were enjoyed by luminaries who received them including Alexander the Great who is said to have introduced them to the Greeks and the Romans. It is from the latter group that the word peach became the word for Persian apple, Persicum malum.
To preserve this fruit, Chinese take young green fruit, remove the pit and dry them in the sun. They dry the kernels the same way and make them into wine by mixing four tablespoons of crushed kernels with one tablespoon of wild ginger (Asarum blumei). They actually crush the whole ginger plant for this recipe. They then add rice wine and steep this for ten days, strain it, and then use its infusion.
'Peach Blossom Land' is a Chinese term for a place or haven of peace. This idea existed in people's dreams from earliest times. One scholar, Tao Yuan-ming in the Jin Dynasty (317 to 420 CE), described this dreamland as a place where peach trees blossom, people are happy farmers, and visitors are treated hospitably. Someone else wrote that this Peach Blossom Land was in the Hunan Province because there you see lots of blossoms in early spring. Real or not, the peach is something to dream about. So was a peach recipe we found recently in a contemporary cook book.
Actually, we thought that recipe better to dream about than to taste as its name was: Coke Jelly Mould with Peach. After dreaming about it in what we thought was a nightmare, we decided to make it as instructed and see what type of reality this dream was. So, with a can of this modern beverage mixed with the juice from a can of sliced peaches, and a teaspoon each of well mixed gelatin powder and sugar, we boiled then cooled the mixture before dividing it into four portions. The color was dreary as we added the peaches that remained after using the liquid. After it froze for an hour, we learned that the kids who tried it adored it. Many adults liked this dream turned reality, too.
More traditional recipes follow. The first is from the Encyclopedia of Food and Cooking by our test kitchen directors and their friends. It is a Cantonese dish and shows influences of its neighbors in Hong Kong. The second is a northern dish appreciated in the west and south of China. A third recipe using peaches, titled Pickled Peaches, is from Eileen Yin-Fei Lo's book and is in the 'On our Bookshelves' review on page 19 of this issue.
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