6 Ways to Savor Winter Kumquats

Food Lists Kumquats
6 Ways to Savor Winter Kumquats

In the days leading up to Lunar New Year, kumquat and calamondin trees fill the windows of shops in Philadelphia’s Chinatown. Bright and citrus-scented, the evergreen plants are considered to be auspicious, a symbol of wealth and good fortune. Thankfully, given that the petit orange fruit is uniquely delicious, their use also goes beyond the ornamental. Candied kumquats — crafted from the tiniest of citrus plants — have pride of place during holiday gatherings.

Well…pseudo-citrus, anyway. In actuality, that’s not quite correct. Though a member of the botanical citrus family (rutaceae), kumquats landed their own genus back in 1915: fortunella. As it happens, that was in honor of the London Horticultural Society collector who introduced the diminutive fruit to Europe in 1848, Robert Fortune. Still, the word retains an auspicious ring.

In a way, it’s part of the fruit’s etymological DNA. In Cantonese, “gam gwat” translates to “golden orange,” the latter word sounding like the Cantonese for “good luck” and the former being the word for “gold.” From the green leaves to the golden hue, symbolism abounds.

Believed to be native to China, kumquats were first described in Chinese literature in 1178 A.D. They emerge at the market come winter, a point of brightness when the weather gets dreary. Best of all, they can eaten whole, peel and all, and there is even a twist: the juice and pulp is distinctly sour, while the rind is softly sweet.

Seasonally available from November through March, kumquats are an indulgence worth seeking. They can also be a bit elusive, depending on where you live. So if you see them, hoard them. While writing this story, I cooked through my first batch and ended up engaged in a long, kumquat-seeking adventure that absorbed the better part of an afternoon.

If you’re like me, you’ll probably find yourself eating them by the handful, perhaps rolling them in your hand first to release the essential oils in the rind. But leave room to experiment. From cocktails and candies to savory stir-fries, there’s more than one way to savor this perfect little fruit.

1. Kumquat Marmalade
kumquat-earl-grey-marmalade-by-jenn-hall.jpgPhoto by Jenn Hall
If you were to play a word association game, the most common response to “kumquat” might be marmalade. Given their flavor profile, kumquats melt down into a tart-sweet jam beautifully. That being said, it’s most fun if you play with the flavor profiles, as in this Kumquat Earl Grey marmalade from Elizabeth Field. My advice: add a few lemons to really achieve that teatime vibe.

2. Kumquat Vodka / Kumquat-Ginger Simple Syrup
When the clock strikes five, break out the kumquats. There are all kinds of ways to amp up cocktails with a sweet-tart kick. If you’re a planner, infused vodka or gin is the way to go. It’s simple: toss three ounces of kumquats into two cups of booze. Cover, and then let it hang for two days to a week, shaking daily. When you’re happy with the infusion, strain and store. Don’t want to wait? Make kumquat ginger simple syrup like the duo from Nerds with Knives, and then use it in your next gin or bourbon cocktail. Bonus: mocktail fans will love the syrup too.

3. Kumquat salsa
kumquat-salsa-by-jenn-hall.jpgPhoto by Jenn Hall
Moving on from the sweet, kumquat salsa brings heat to taco Tuesday. This little number from Elise Bauer is almost too pretty to eat…almost. Intriguing is how the kumquat stands in for both tomato and citrus, and it rounds out a healthy pairing with seafood or lean steak.

4. Kumquat pork stir-fry
Pork and orange travel together often in the realm of stir-fries, but kumquats work well too. Swap them out freestyle or follow along with this recipe that pairs the fruit with hoisin and oyster sauce. They also do well alongside other vegetables in a pork or beef roast.

5. Traditional candied kumquats
candied-kumquats-2-by-jenn-hall.jpgPhoto by Jenn Hall
In the Time-Life Foods of the Word edition on China, circa 1968, kumquats are described as “a little citrus like a doll’s-house orange.” That somehow seems particularly apt when it comes to the candied variety. In terms of method, there are a number of routes you can take. The kumquats found on New Year tables take several days to prepare, as in this recipe from the blog The Hong Kong Cookery. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s perfectly possible to candy in just a few hours, like Aida Mollenkamp does. The main difference will be textural, the fast-track version edging more towards marmalade.

6. Super-traditional preserved kumquats
preserving-kumquats-by-jenn-hall.jpgPhoto by Jenn Hall
Like preserved lemons? You’ll love preserved kumquats, which can be swapped out in your next tagine. Salted kumquats are also used as a sore-throat remedy, boiled into a tea with lots of honey as shown in this video from Steamy Kitchen.

Jenn Hall writes about food and culture from a Jersey-side suburb of Philly. Follow along on Instagram and Twitter @jennsarahhall.

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