I have always been a big fan of citrus. Sometimes it’s puckeringly sour; sometimes it’s sweet; it’s always a good source vitamins, and it livens up a glass of water (or a cocktail). But if you look beyond the usual suspects, you’ll see that there is a wide variety of citrus fruit out there. Some are vibrantly colored, while others look bruised when they’re ripe; some are smooth and easy to peel, while others look like the squid beast of your nightmares. To get you started on your citrus explorations, here are a few of my favorites.
Also known as the “Fingered Citron,” Buddha’s hand is one of the oldest and creepiest members of the citrus family. It is believed that they were brought over from India to China sometime after the fourth century A.D. Today, in China and Japan, this unsightly citrus variety represents happiness and long life; they’re often displayed in temples and homes for good luck. While they haven’t gone completely mainstream—they can’t handle cold weather or frosts—you can still find Buddha’s hands at specialty grocery stores.
Before you begin wondering how you’d ever peel this thing, the good news is you don’t. Buddha’s hands are 100% rind and pith; they contain no juice at all. The rind, though, is chock full of essential oils that are delicious in dressings and marinades. To use a Buddha’s hand, just cut off a “finger” and slice it into strips. Then you can candy them, put them to the Microplane or scare your friends.
Yuzu is also a pretty bizarre fruit. Generally yellowish-green, yuzu can have a bumpy rind, like a lemon with acne. Their flavor can be described as a mixture of lemons, oranges and grapefruits. They are also packed with vitamin C—about three times more than lemons.
While not entirely popular in the U.S., yuzu has been used in Asia for centuries. They grow in Tibet, Central China, Japan and Korea, and their zest and juice can be found in a multitude of Asian ingredients like ponzu sauce and even some miso soup recipes. Because of its refreshingly sour and floral bite, yuzu is excellent for vinaigrettes and cocktails. While it’s remarkably hard to find fresh yuzu in the grocery store, you can usually find its juice bottled for sale.
If you’re not into buying the juice, you can likely find it listed on the menu at restaurants, because chefs are into it. Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten served Sour Cherry-Yuzu Bellinis at a pig roast, and at Ippudo in NYC, they top their edamame and shishito pepper with yuzu salt.
You won’t be shocked when I tell you that Key limes were named for the Florida Keys. But you may be surprised to know that they are also known as the West Indian lime, and have been cultivated for thousands of years in Indonesia. From there, they traveled all over the Eastern Mediterranean and then to the West Indies, where Spanish explorers introduced them. They were grown in Florida as early as 1906, and today, most are grown in Mexico and Central America.
Key limes are generally smaller than a lime—like the size of a golf ball. They’re packed with citric acid (more than lemons), which gives them a very tart and bitter flavor. But this goes well with sweets, like Key lime pies, for example. And if you’re looking to go beyond the usual pie, try doughnuts or bars topped with coconut.
Only in recent years have these petite fruits been ubiquitous in American produce aisles. Clementines were named for Father Clement Rodier, an Algerian man who is said to have accidentally created the sweet orange-and-mandarin hybrid in 1902. For years, clementines were available throughout Europe and the Middle East, and were introduced to California commercial agriculture in 1914. It is also speculated that clementines came into popularity when a harsh winter storm hit Florida in 1997, decimating domestic orange production.
Today, these sweet little accidents are a staple for soccer moms and families who buy them in those huge netted crates. You’ll recognize clementines for their smooth, easy-to-peel skin and adorable, pith-fee segments. While they look just like a little orange, they’re much less acidic, making them more palatable for the kids.
But these cuties aren’t just made for kids. You can use clementines segmented in your salads, squeeze their juice into baked goods (a chocolate-clementine combination would be nice) or blend them with bananas for a vitamin-packed smoothie. Or just eat five at a time.
Everyone is always asking what the difference is between standard-issue lemons and Meyer lemons. While they could technically be used interchangeably in recipes, there are some significant differences between the two citrus fruits. First of all, Meyer lemons are a warmer yellow shade with a smooth rind (reminiscent of a clementine). The flavor is also sweeter than a typical lemon, offering floral and honey hints. Think of it as a prettier, more refined lemon.
In 1908, a member of our Department of Agriculture, Frank N. Meyer, brought Meyer lemons to the U.S. Today they’re widely used. I got a few in my Quinciple box a few weeks ago, and I quickly squeezed them into tea—though they’d be delicious sliced on top of a grilled piece of fish or zested into pound cake. You can also find Meyer lemons at Whole Foods and farmers’ markets, though they may be absent from some local grocery stores.
The ugli fruit is form of tangelo that originated in Jamaica and was discovered growing wild about eighty years ago. The name UGLI is actually trademarked by Cabel Hall Citrus Limited, who market the fruit. And the fruit is, in fact, hideous-looking. Its skin is cragged and wrinkly. Instead of one uniform color, it’s orangey, yellow and green. While the appearance is less than pleasing, the flavor is refreshing: sour like a grapefruit and sweet like a tangerine.
You can peel ugli fruits or cut and segment them. Aside from eating them as-is, I’ve seen a few recipes for uglis—perhaps the most interesting was a sherbet recipe that included crème fraiche and gelatin.
This is just the beginning of the list of odd citrus varieties. The more you research, the more you’ll find, from Shiranuhi mandarins (spotted at Whole Foods in Boston) to kaffir limes and pomelos. Zest them, juice them or sample them raw. If anything, they’re a perfect excuse to experiment with (and drink more) cocktails.
Ariel Kanter is an editor at Gilt City and contributing food writer to amNewYork. She lives and eats in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @RavenousRel and Instagram @ArielKanter for photos of meals and, occasionally, her cat Jasper.