It all started about five years ago. My friend Allison Lonsdale shared a picture online of her attendance at an event in San Diego, and she was wearing a fruit instead of a standard necklace. Well, I thought it was a fruit, but I wasn’t sure: it either looked as if she’d taken a wax lemon and melted it until it threw off long twining drippings off the bottom, or if she’d covered a small octopus with yellow highway lane paint. All I knew was that this thing was about the size of my fist, bright canary yellow, and possessed of tentacles.
Since I feared for her safety with this monstrous pome, I had to ask about its identity. Not surprisingly, I was still at a loss: she said it was a Buddha’s Hand citron, and that she’d picked it up in a San Diego market shortly before taking the picture. This cleared up the picture, slightly, because I knew what a citron was, but it didn’t explain who mutilated a helpless citron such as this. I then went to the Interwebs and the few general reference books available on citrus, and that’s when the mad quest began.
To explain, citrons are a relatively uncommonly encountered variety of citrus fruit, mostly because they have little to no pulp. This is why restaurants don’t offer citron juice in their breakfast menus. Oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruit comparatively have huge reserves of pulp as compared to peel and pith: cut open a citron, and the cross-section suggests a particularly nasty practical joke by someone who really hated lemonade. However, the peel is valuable on its own, as the outer layer, or zest, is exceptionally flavorful and intense. Throughout much of Asia, citrons are grown for their scent and as a flavoring, as they have a distinctive tang that separates them from the standard lemon and lime varieties used for baking and cooking.
The Buddha’s Hand citron tree is not a particularly noteworthy tree without its fruit. As with most citrus, it starts out as a multibranched bush or shrub, producing large, soft leaves with a distinctive petiole and stems with short sharp spines. The blooms are white with purple highlights, with an intoxicating scent that contains none of the underlying bitterness of lemon or orange blossoms. (By the way, the petals are edible and quite tasty, and are best if gathered within minutes of falling from the flower.) However, something happened about 4000 years ago to a citron tree somewhere in China, where it started producing fruit with long protrusions off the bottom. These were cultivated and propagated for centuries, and presumably all existing Buddha’s Hand citrons today are descended from that one mutant tree. Well, I say “presumably” because no reference I could find mentions the existence of Buddha’s Hand seeds, although they might happen from time to time.
And the meaning of the name? Well, according to many resources, the fruit resembles praying hands in its “closed” form, where the tentacles remain bunched tightly at the bottom of the fruit. The “open” form, where the tentacles spread wide like an attacking squid, is the source for the citron’s other nickname: Cthulhufruit, after the most famous character in Providence children’s writer H.P. Lovecraft‘s bedtime stories. Allison’s citrons definitely qualified as Cthulhufruit, as they looked as if they were about to jump off her blouse and attack passersby like the facehuggers in the film Alien, and suggested a “How To Protect Yourself From An Assailant Armed With A Piece of Fresh Fruit” defense course as taught by the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce instead of the Monty Python troupe. At that point, I knew I had to get one.
That issue, as can be expected, was problematic. As with most citrus, citrons produce their fruit only toward the end of the year, and citrons only grow in areas protected from freezes and strong frosts. The trees themselves can be found from time to time in larger nurseries, where I purchased mine: they have problems with sunburn in extreme heat and low humidity, but a Buddha’s Hand in a container does very well in a good sunny area protected from typical Texas wind. Almost every English-language reference book on citrus disdains Buddha’s Hands as a “novelty” or “curiosity” before begrudgingly admitting to their value for zest, and that’s maybe two or three words before badmouthing the effort of getting the zest off each tentacle. Because of this attitude, they almost never show up in standard grocery stores, and even when they do, they only remain for about a week or two before being snapped up by the curious and the gastronomically jaded.
Since my father’s family comes from good stout British/Scottish Catholic stock, where we’re encouraged, to steal from a book review I read years back, to stretch out the Christmas turkey to the point where we’re making turkey-flavored gelatin out of the bones in mid-July, I didn’t want to get a Buddha’s Hand just to get one. If it was to arrive in my home, it had to have a purpose and a meaning, if only to terrify the cats and scare the neighborhood children. Thankfully, the Czarina was going through a collection of very old cookbooks left her by her grandmother, and one book on candies contained a recipe for candied orange and grapefruit peel. These sorts of preserves were rather popular until after the Great Depression, and we figured that making up a batch of candied Cthulhufruit would be an interesting addition to Chinese New Year festivities in the Dallas area. The fruit was in season at the time, so I figured a couple of phone calls would take care of the problem
If I’d known what an aggravation we’d go through to get one, I would have settled for growing my own. For various understandable reasons related to weather problems in California and disease quarantine in Florida, the several Asian groceries in Dallas that would have carried the elusive citrons were empty. I was pointed in the direction of various online sellers, but they were either already sold out or unable to ship to Texas. (As a general rule, while citrus from either Florida or California may be shipped to other states in the US without problems, imports to any citrus-producing state are very carefully watched by the US Department of Agriculture to prevent the spread of disease. With the quarantine of all of Florida by the USDA due to the threat of citrus canker, nobody was going to take a chance on destroying Texas’s multi-billion-dollar crop, as I discovered when I first bought a Buddha’s Hand tree from an online nursery that was smuggling potentially infected trees from Florida suppliers. Having the USDA show up at your front door with a receipt of the purchase and an explanation of why they have to confiscate it just cements the understanding that USDA agents are horribly underpaid for the work they do.) And then there was the situation with local stores selling for the gourmand and chef community. Whoo boy.
Now, I know that both the Whole Foods and Central Market grocery chains have plenty of employees and managers more than willing to assist customers with strange requests and either follow through on getting information or state “Sorry, but we can’t do it.” These individuals are as rare at my local stores as the citrons themselves. Central Market reps repeatedly told me over the phone and in person “We’ll have them in on Tuesday” for a month before I finally gave up, and Whole Foods apparently hires managers too arrogant and abrasive for even Borders Books & Music. I started at the store by my house because it had an empty bin labeled for Buddha’s Hands at the beginning of January, and found that its produce department was best at passing hot potatoes. After two months of coming back in every week because leaving my name and phone number in exchange for a promise to get a response on making a special order never got a followup, I finally got a manager who literally sneered that “they’re out of season this time of the year” and “there’s not that much of a demand for those”, and that he shouldn’t be expected to bother the produce department with such petty requests. It shouldn’t be surprising to discover that he was, indeed, a bookstore managerial reject. A letter to the Whole Foods corporate headquarters got no response on the citrons and probably a promotion for the petty tyrant, and just when I’d given up, a local Kroger store put three on display. The sound heard at the checkout was the shockwave made by my snagging two of them before anyone else could get them out of my hands, and the Czarina and I rushed them home and put them into the refrigerator before they turned back into pumpkins and mice.
The next day, we started our little adventure by taking the citrons out of the fridge and slicing them into orange peel-sized segments.
Again, most guides will mention that Buddha’s Hand citrons have little to no pulp, but I still wasn’t expecting a complete lack of pulp. Note the white flesh? That’s nothing but rind. No pulp, no seeds, no nuthin’ but rind. If I’d had to resort to attempting to raise Buddha’s Hands from seed, I would have been more than a bit aggravated if I’d gotten this far and discovered nothing.
Well, now that it’s been sliced up like a potato destined for a deep fryer, it’s time to take a look at what to do with it. The free taste, so to say, of what Buddha’s Hands are capable of is with a simple candied peel recipe: the Czarina is currently running experiments with other recipes, but those are going to have to wait. Some are so good that they may have to go with her to her grave.
Candied Buddha’s Hand Citron
2 whole Buddha’s Hand citrons, washed and cleaned (approximately one pound)
2 pounds granulated sugar
(optional) 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
After removing any bruised or damaged sections, thinly slice the citrons lengthwise. The resultant pieces may be cut in half if necessary. Put the citron pieces into a medium saucepan, cover with cold water, and heat until just before the water boils.
Most recipes for candied citrus peel recommend that the water be replaced at this time with cold water and repeated at least once for orange or lemon peel, and that the water be allowed to boil for grapefruit. This may be necessary for these citrus, but Buddha’s Hand citrons have a delicate enough flavor that the slices should be given this bath once or maybe twice. More than two heating baths, and much of the essential oils in the rind may be lost.
After the desired number of baths, drain the water, recover with cold water, and return to the stove. Add an equal amount of sugar as fresh fruit used and heat to boiling.
Anyone familiar with making maple syrup will note that the reducing process will take some time, so stir regularly and keep an eye on the froth at the top of the pan. When the froth starts becoming thick, turn down the heat, but continue to boil. In the meantime, prepare a baking sheet by greasing or covering with wax paper, and sprinkle a layer of the remaining sugar on top.
When a drop of the juice inside the pan, when dripped from the spoon, makes a thin cobwebby thread, remove the pan from the heat. Spoon the slices from the pan and place them on the baking sheet. (CAUTION: the citron slices are very hot, and THEY WILL BURN EXPOSED SKIN. Please be careful not to get splashed: I speak from experience.) Sprinkle the remaining sugar liberally over the slices and allow to cool.
Optionally, the remaining sugar may be flavored with vanilla to complement the flavor of the citron. Slowly add 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract to a small amount of sugar and stir well. Sprinkle this mix atop the cooling slices before applying the rest of the sugar. Makes 1.5 pounds of candied Buddha’s Hand citron. Store in airtight containers.
WARNING: To prevent excessive pilfering by well-meaning but addicted spouses, as shown below, hide remaining candy in an undisclosed location. Give them the remaining sauce for further recipe experiments, and wait for citron season to come again.
Any questions? See, Allison, this is ALL YOUR FAULT.