Discovering the sweetness of sour

This chocolate tart is topped with whole candied cumquats. Picture: LANCE SEETO

With the Fijian “winter” approaching in a few months, nature is once again signalling that her food medicines are coming into the season, especially the citrus fruits. Lemon, lime, mandarin, pineapple, guava and cumquat are key sources of vitamin C for Pacific islanders – an important medicine to help build immunity and defence against disease.

Without a regular dose of vitamin C, we weaken our body’s defences. And at a time when we are learning to protect ourselves from viruses, making sure we eat lots of these types of foods has now become potentially lifesaving. So it comes as no surprise that our markets and gardens are filled with citrus fruits but there is one fruit that has a sweetness of sour that I look forward to every year – cumquat.

Citrus fruit, or moli, are an essential ingredient of Pacific island cuisine. They are used for ‘curing’ fish and seafood, adding sourness to coconut milk and teas, and are perfect in jams, marmalades and cakes. However, there is one member of the citrus family that can be eaten whole – skin and all – and that is cumquat.

Spelt with a “c” in Australia and a “k” elsewhere in the world, cumquats are now beginning to appear at the markets. Compared to lemons, limes or oranges, the thin skins of these cute little fruits are slightly sweet, but when you bite into them, their juicy fl esh offers a jolt of tartness that will make your cheeks suck in, lips pucker and eyes water.

My staffs think I’m crazy but eating cumquats like a grape is one of those little joys that I look forward to when they are in season. This sensory, explosive experience is why I now have them in place of lemons across my entire lunch menu, as I want my guests to enjoy the same jolt to their palate. The deep orange colour of the fl esh and perfectly symmetrical locule segments are a visual marvel of nature, that draws the eye straight to them on the plate.

Raw, grilled or cooked

 Cumquats taste best if they are gently rolled between the fi ngers before being eaten raw, as this releases the essential oils in the rind, which not only contain many healing properties, but also is where its citrusy flavour is hidden. Discovering the sweetness of sour in cumquats makes it an exotic addition to just about any seafood or coconut-based dish that needs tartness, which is why cumquats are at home in Pacific island cuisine. However, most just squeeze the cumquat for its juice, rather than serve it as an accompaniment to be eaten skin and all.

Like most citrus fruits, when you grill a halved cumquat on a bbq grill or a very hot frypan, it gives it a subtle, smoky flavour and makes the fruit extra-juicy. Try serving your next fi sh dish with grilled cumquats, a dressed salad, mashed potato and a butter sauce with chopped salty capers or nama sea grapes. I promise.

The addition of grilled cumquats, eaten together with everything else on the plate, will blow your mind.

Where are they from?

 Cumquats are native to South-East China and tropical Malaysia, and their name derives from the Cantonese word “kam kwat”, which means “golden orange”. In ancient China they were revered by royalty and peasants alike, as they symbolised prosperity and wealth, and today the cumquat tree is still given as a traditional gift at Lunar New Year.

There are two varieties of cumquats grown in Fiji that I know of. The most common is the round, Japanesecultivated Marumi cumquat with its thin waxy skin, aromatic and spicy scent, with large essential oil glands. Marumi have acid-sweet, juicy flesh, with pulp in 4–7 segments, and 5-9 seeds. The other less common is the oblongshaped but much-sweeter Meiwa. I’ve only seen these grown in people’s yards and are virtually seedless and less juicy, but with edible sweeter skin.

The Meiwa variety are better used for jams and chutneys but are just as delicious eaten raw if you can find them.

Is it really a citrus fruit? 

Cumquats are technically not citrus fruits like oranges and lemons, as they belong to a different genus of thin, edible-rinded fruits known as Fortunella.

At the turn of the last century, botanists decided to distinguish these little sweet and sour balls from their more sour cousins, and named the species after an intrepid 19th-century plant explorer, Robert Fortune. A master of industrial espionage and fl uent in the Mandarin language, the Scotsman was sent by the British Horticultural Society to infiltrate and collect an assortment of flora in China.

He managed to disguise himself as a peasant so well that he was able to travel to forbidden places unchallenged. Fortune smuggled out many of China’s highly coveted teas and indigenous plants, and is credited with introducing the art of miniature bonsai trees to the Western world. Although the cumquat was cultivated in Japan a century before, they were eventually introduced to Europe in 1846, Florida (USA) in 1855 and Hawai’i around 1888.

Health benefits of cumquats 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that cumquats contain a range of medicinal properties that heal, repair and revitalise the body.

Their high vitamin C content boosts our immune system, especially in preparation for the colder weather in a few months. They are also rich in vitamin A, fibre, potassium and calcium – basically, they are good for you! And remember those essential oils hidden in the thin skin of cumquats? They are known to boost your mood, rejuvenate your energy, purify the skin, remove toxins and fight bacteria.

They’re basically a citrus bomb of medicine and flavour. Like oranges, cumquats are delicious in savoury dishes as mentioned earlier. Since cooking them mellows their acidity, they make great chutneys and relishes that complement lamb, pork and duck. Simply sliced raw, cumquats add zing to salads of bitter greens like roquette and watercress. But like everything in life, it’s all about expectations. If you eat a cumquat expecting total sweetness, you’ll get hit by its intense tartness and quickly discover the sweetness of sour. And if you’re like me, you’ll go back for more punishment.  Lance Seeto is the host of FBC TV’s Exotic Delights, and chef owner of KANU Gastropub in Nadi. Recipes By LANCE SEETO

Spinach salad with cumquats

This citrusy salad uses cumquats, orange

and local mandarins to create a

tangy flavour that goes well with the

raw salad greens.

Makes 4 servings

Dressing

1 onion, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons virgin olive oil, divided

1 tablespoon rice or white vinegar

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed mandarins

1 teaspoon honey

1/4 teaspoon mandarin zest

Salt and cracked black pepper, to taste

Salad

2 cups leafy greens (lettuce or ota)

1 cup spinach or moca leaves

2 oranges, peeled and sectioned

8 cumquats, thinly sliced and de-seeded

1/4 cup toasted peanuts

  1. In a small frypan over medium

heat, saute onions in 1 tablespoon

olive oil until soft, about 3 to 5

minutes.

  1. While onions are cooking, whisk

together in a small bowl the rice

vinegar, mandarin juice, honey

and zest. Add onions with the olive

oil in which they were cooked.

Gradually whisk in the remaining

1 tablespoon of olive oil. Season

with salt and freshly ground black

pepper.

  1. Saute the spinach or moca leaves

in a little oil for no longer than 30

seconds. Remove from heat.

  1. Divide the green leaves among 4

plates. Top each with 1/4 of the

oranges, cumquats and peanuts.

Drizzle each salad with dressing

and serve.

Cumquat and raisin chutney

This chutney is sweet, tart and tangy.

Spread it on breakfast crackers or buttered

crusty bread for an appetizer, or

pair it with roast pork or duck curry.

Makes 2 cups

1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds (sarso)

1/2 teaspoon star aniseed (anasphal)

1 1/2 cups of sliced, de-seeded cumquats

1 cup sugar plus 2 tablespoons

1 1/4 cups freshly squeezed orange or

mandarin juice

1/2 cup dried raisins (try sultanas or

cranberry)

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon minced

fresh ginger

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  1. In a small, dry frypan over medium

heat, toast mustard seeds

and star anise. Gently shake the

pan in a back-and-forth motion

until seeds are aromatic and

lightly toasted, about 1 to 2 minutes.

  1. Transfer to a heavy, small saucepan

with remaining ingredients.

Bring to a boil, stirring often.

Reduce heat to medium-low and

simmer until the chutney thickens

and the cumquats become

translucent, about 10 to 15 minutes.

  1. Transfer chutney to a bowl and let

cool before serving. Chutney can

be stored in an air-tight container

in the refrigerator for up to two

weeks. Bring to room temperature

or reheat on the stovetop

before serving.

Grilled fish with cumquat

citrus butter

This zesty citrus butter enlivens white

fish or shellfish like kai

Makes 4 servings

Cumquat Citrus Butter

1 1/2 tablespoons softened Rewa butter

4 de-seeded cumquats with rinds,

minced until pulpy

1 teaspoon orange zest

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger

Salt and freshly ground black pepper,

to taste

4 or 5 fresh mint leaves, minced, plus a

couple more for garnish

Fish

4 fish fillets

2 teaspoons Rewa butter

2 teaspoons olive or coconut oil

  1. Combine all ingredients for the

citrus butter in a small bowl and

mix with your fingertips, ensuring

that the fruit and seasonings are

incorporated into the butter. Set

aside.

  1. For the fish, melt butter with olive

oil in a large skillet over mediumhigh

heat. Rub fish fillets on both

sides with half of the citrus butter

and place in the hot skillet.

Cook fillets for 4 minutes, then

flip once and cook an additional 2

to 3 minutes, or until opaque and

slightly browned.

  1. Melt remaining half of the citrus

butter in the microwave or on the

stovetop and drizzle on top of the

cooked fish before serving. Garnish

with additional mint, if desired.

Cumquat upside tea cake

Makes one 8 inch (20cm) cake. Serves

8 – 12

Upside-down ingredients

300 gm cumquats

2 tablespoon virgin coconut oil, melted

¼ cup granulated white sugar, lightly

packed

1 tablespoon boiling water

Cake

½ cup virgin coconut oil, semi-solid

½ cup white granulated sugar, lightly

packed

2 eggs, at room temperature

½ cup coconut milk

¼ cup orange juice

2 teaspoon vanilla essence

2 cup normal fl our

2 tablespoon corn fl our

2 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon sea salt

Topping

handful flaked almonds

handful shredded coconut

  1. Preheat oven to 180°C. Grease

sides of an 8 inch / 20 cm cake

tin with a bit of coconut oil.

  1. Slice a very thin bit off the end of

each cumquat and cut in half and

remove seeds.

  1. Drizzle melted coconut oil into

cake tin base. Combine boiling

water and sugar and stir gently,

then drizzle over coconut oil.

Place cumquat slices over caramel

mixture, packing them very

tightly together as they’ll shrink

when cooked

  1. In a large bowl use a whisk or

electric beater to cream coconut

oil and sugar together until

smooth. Add eggs and beat well.

  1. Combine orange juice, coconut

milk and vanilla essence in a jug.

Combine dry ingredients in a separate

bowl.

  1. Stir a third of the dry ingredients

into the egg mixture followed by

half the wet ingredients. Repeat

then end with dry ingredients.

Tip batter over cumquats and

smooth top.

  1. Bake approximately 25 minutes

until cake pulls away from the

edges and a skewer inserted into

the centre comes out clean. Cool

in pan for 5 minutes, run a knife

around the edge then shake gently

to loosen fruit and tip onto

serving plate. Set aside to cool

completely.

  1. Meanwhile, toast almonds in a

dry pan until just golden and remove.

Repeat with coconut and

combine with almonds. Sprinkle

over cake to serve.

More Stories