Buddha's hand citron: like lemon, but zestier
One of the most exotic-looking items in high-end produce departments is Buddha’s hand citron, a palm-sized fruit that sells for as much as $10. It’s a steep price to pay for something with no juice, no pulpy flesh and just a mild-tasting white pith. The appeal here is all in the highly aromatic rind: The fingers of the fruit can deliver eight times the surface area for zest compared with other citrus.
Buddha’s hand (Citrus medica) is thought to have originated in India or China, but it's ideally suited to Southern California's climate -- a fact noted more than 100 years ago by B.M. Lelong, the secretary of the state Board of Horticulture, who included a recipe for brined candied fruit in his 1888 report.
Only now is Buddha's head starting to catch on, with commercial growers as well as with rare fruit fans. Marsha Fowler, a member of California Rare Fruit Growers in Altadena, says it’s ideal for putting in the frontyard because most people don’t know how to use the fruit, so it doesn’t get picked by passersby. She put in one plant a few years ago after a chef introduced it to her and enjoyed it so much, getting fruit in two years, that she got two more.
“Anything you can use lemon peel for, you can use this,” she said. “It has multiple culinary uses, savory and sweet. It pairs well with lavender and basil. In a crème brûlée or the crust of a cream pie, it’s exquisite.”
When harvest time comes, segments of Buddha's hand -- diced, grated or slivered -- find their way into vodka infusions or sprinkled onto baked fish. In China, the winter-ripening fruit is kept whole, allowing the intense bouquet to perfume a room. In Japan it’s given as a New Year's present and often used ornamentally on an altar.
Fowler said it can be added to a potpourri mix. She shares her crop with RIPE Altadena, the Residential In-season Produce Exchange group that swaps excess harvests, but only at the smaller meetings. If the offer for Buddha's hand went out on the email list, she’d be swamped.
You'll find plants in nurseries fall to early spring, and demand can deplete stock quickly, nursery owner Frank Burkard said. “It was very popular about 10 years ago," he said, and has only become more popular.
This year Buddha's hand may be even harder to find, he said. Buddha’s hand is threatened by the Asian citrus psyllid, a pest that spreads a disease threatening the state's citrus crops, and some growers have proactively cut back production. Two nurseries that regularly stock Buddha’s hand are Southland Nursery in Sunland, (818) 353-3502, and Paradise Nursery in Chatsworth.
-- Jeff Spurrier
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Photos: Ann Summa