QT 54 – Serious About Citrus

QT 54 – Serious About Citrus

Why Hello There, and welcome to Kitchen Catastrophe Quick Tips. Let me start out by saying I’m pretty excited about today’s topic, and also that it turns out I was completely unprepared for it, much like basically every sixteen-year old boy in America and sex. Today, we’re talking about Citrus, and specifically, a fact I didn’t know about citrus fruits until well into my cooking hobby. And we’ll get to it in a minute, but first, let’s lay down some definitions.


Forget your Citrus, and you’ll Rue the Day

Citrus plants are from the Rue family, or Rutaceae. Rue USED to be used in a fair bit of foods and folk medicine, but it’s pretty bitter, and if you make extracts of the oils, they’re actually poisonous, so it kind of fell off in favor. As a slight etymological note, the plant name “rue” and the verb “rue” come from completely unrelated sources. (The plant is from the Greek and Latin ruta, while the verb is from the Old English hrēow.)

Citrus fruits tend to be noted for their high acidity and/or astringency: lemons, oranges, grapefruits, limes, etc. They’re typically great sources of Vitamin C, helping people prevent scurvy; which, fun fact, is where two long-running Europeans exonyms come from: People call Germans “Krauts”, because their sailors ate sauerkraut to prevent scurvy, while Englishmen used limes for the same purpose, becoming “Limeys”.


"Would you call this a lime bowl?"
"Well, I mean, it's mostly lemons. There are SOME limes, though. I guess I'd call it 'Lime-y'?"

And here’s the fact I actually found out that made me want to cover citrus in a Quick Tip: You know all those citrus fruits I named earlier? Literally none of them are “natural” citrus varieties. Yeah, it turns out that all major citrus plants (and by extensions, their fruits) come from hybrid breeds of three original species. Like how we turned wolves into wiener dogs through concerted effort, and an intense hatred of badgers. That’s why we made wiener dogs, by the way. To fuck up badgers. And weasels. And rabbits. Basically, we looked at all the animals that hide in underground tunnels and said “you know, I bet I could make a living  Roto-rooter to ruin those little shits’ day.” Which is an impressive thought in the 1700’s, since the Roto-Rooter wasn’t invented until 1930.


I traveled through TIME to ruin your life, you little shit. Salamandstron THAT, brock!

You’ll note I said “major” there. There are actually 3 other species with relatively smaller outputs. Kumquats, for instance, are a separate species, and their placement is somewhat confusing: they were originally classified as citrus in 1784, and then, in 1915, they got moved to another genus, until recent DNA checking put them back in citrus. Luckily, they don’t hybridize well, so they don’t interact with other species much. The Japanese Yuzu is in a similar position.

But, in general, almost all citrus plants you encounter in your average American supermarket come from cross-breeding three core species: Mandarins, Pomelos, and Citrons.  So let’s talk about these three fruity forebears, and what they all bring to the table. And let’s do it in alphabetical order, because Citrons actually make the most sense to talk about first.


If I make my stepdaughter tend to my orchard all day, will she become Citronella? Because I hate mosquitos.

Combining fairy tale etymologies with camping chemical names, Title Jon? I’m digging it. That may be the weirdest dumb pun we’ve written yet.

Anyway, Citron is a useful species to talk about first because, well, if you look at the names of the main three, who do you THINK they named “Citrus” after? “Citrus” is actually just the Latin name for this plant. (Of course, then France then took citron as its word for “Lemon”, confusing the issue But they’re not unique in that regard: when the word showed up in English, it originally included Lemons and limes as well. This happens a lot with citrus: In any given country in Central or South America, whether the words “límon” and “lima” refer to “lemon” and “lime”…or “lime” and “lemon” varies wildly. Some countries don’t even HAVE one of the words, because that fruit doesn’t grow there. And Mexican limes are actually a different species of limes than American ones anyway, so we were NEVER talking about the same plant, and I’m going cross-eyed. ) And you’ve probably never seen it. Unless you shop in Asian markets, interestingly.

darya pino.jpg

Or in the house of R'lyeh, where dead Cthulhu lays dreaming. 

That eldritch abomination of a fruit is a “Buddha’s Hand”, a type of Asian citron. And looking at that, you’re actually seeing two of the big things citron brought to the table: of the three species, Citron is the one that’s typically yellow when ripe, and it’s the least round of the bunch.

It also has a super-thick rind:  the inside of the plant is something like 60-70% white pith. We have records of it as far back as 3,000 years ago, and at the time, it wasn’t really considered food. Instead, it had three purposes: if you tossed the fruit into a closet, moths wouldn’t eat your clothes; then, if you were poisoned, you mixed it with wine to induce vomiting, and lastly, if you boiled the stuff and swished it in your mouth, it freshened the breath.

In short, it was a mothball, medicine, or breath-mint. Because while it doesn’t taste very strongly, it does SMELL super-citrusy. Citrons are also the reason I wasn’t actually prepared for this post. See, I had intended to include a taste-test of the original citruses…Except I thought the Ugli fruit was one of them. I don’t know where I got the idea, maybe I misread something, or I mistook a picture of an unripe citron with an Ugli. In any case, I bought an ugli fruit, knowing I can get pumelos and mandarins, started Googling to write up the article, and discovered I had the completely wrong fruit, and no time to get to the right kind of markets to fix the mistake. Which is why now we’re just writing about them, instead of eating them.


You Wanna Know if You’re Important? See What they Name After You.

Mandarins are the second of the main natural citrus species. And while you may not be very familiar with citrons, you’re probably much more familiar with mandarin oranges. And, contrary to what the title implies, the fruit are named for the language, not vice versa. Well, technically they’re both named for the RANK: “Mandarin” was a word invented by Portuguese traders misspeaking Malay. Something like if you accidentally asked to speak to someone’s “bosst”, and then convinced everyone it was totally a thing, shut up. Except, since you’re Portugal, and no one in Europe in 1550 speaks Chinese, they go “Awesome, got it. Bosst with two S’s or just one?” And within a century or two, everyone’s saying “Dude thinks he’s the big bosst on Campus.” And “check out these bosst robes!”


I'm a bosst ass bitch. 

Compounding this level of “Europe just doesn’t understand Asia”, the phrase “Mandarin Oranges” is a calque from Swiss, where the fruit was called “Mandarin apelsin" where the word “apelsin” meant “orange”...from the German “Apfel-Sine”, meaning “Chinese -Apple”. (Well, “Apple-Chinese”, technically.) So, Mandarin oranges are named that because some Swiss guy called the weird little fruits he was getting “Double Chinese Apples”.   

As I said earlier, of course, Mandarins are still in wide production and consumption today. If you haven’t had one, but HAVE had an orange, they’re pretty easy to explain: Mandarins are about half the size of a “normal” orange, have a MUCH thinner peel, and are less sour.

Mandarins are also useful because they’ve moved much less than Citrons: see, the original citrus trees grew in tropical and subtropical Asia, and the islands of Malay. And as the fruits spread, they changed. And they did it a LONG time ago: as noted, Citron was recorded 3,000 years back in EGYPT. How the heck it got there, and how it got so different, is a super interesting question we have no time or scholarly source for, because we’re moving on!


I don’t know whether to make an obscure joke about pommels, or pummels.

Pomelos are the middle child of the three citrus breeds. They’re not super popular, but, like, I can definitely go buy one at my local grocery store. And their name is a goddamn mess. There are two potential origins for it: first, the word might be from a combination of pomme (because when in doubt, every fucking fruit is just a variety of apples) and melon. That one is somewhat unlikely. More likely is that the term is from Tamil, a language from the Indian subcontinent, translated through…Portuguese again.

In Tamil, pampa limasu used to mean “big citrus”. (Though, honestly, given that spelling, I wonder if it’s not “big limes”). The Portuguese wrote it down as pomposos limões, because in addition to putting fucking tildes on vowels like godless savages, they can’t LISTEN WHEN OTHER PEOPLE SPEAK. Or at least, their sailors of 6 or so centuries ago couldn’t. This was eventually turned into “pompelmousse” and “pomelo”, and anyone who speaks Italian just got confused.

Dinica peromaneste.jpg

Probably because they don't know how to listen to people whose hands aren't moving. 

No, it’s because pompelmousse means “grapefruit”. As does Pomelo. Remember my thing earlier about people Citrus being confused with each other other back in the Citron section? Yeah, this is the same thing: All of those names were for Grapefruit…and then we found out that Grapefruit has a grandpa, who needed a name, and, presumably because the scientists who made that discovery spoke English, they said “Let’s just use that version of the name no one cares about!” Though, if we REALLY wanted to do that, we’d call it “Shaddock”. Yeah, there’s ANOTHER name for this plant, because it turns out when you sent a bunch of sailors to start buying fruit without scientists around, NAMES GET MESSED UP. (“Shaddock” was the name of the captain who brought some pomelo tree cuttings to Jamaica, so they were ‘shaddocks’ there and in England for a while.)

Akuppa Jon Wigham.jpg

I was going to make a bunch of jokes about how "shaddock" sounds like cockney rhyming slang for a penis, but then I found this picture of a nice older woman just BURIED in pomelos, and I thought a more wholesome note was required. 

In terms of eating, as you guess, Pomelos are a lot like grapefruits. In composition, at least: thick white piths, segmented fruit flesh inside. Interestingly, pomelos are much sweeter than grapefruit, though the pith is still quite bitter. The flesh is much paler, and sometimes green.


Sunny D, alright!

And those are the big three. Creepy finger Lemon plant, squishy squat oranges, and sweet green grapefruit. From those three, mixing and interbreeding, we got a spree of citrus varieties. Dozens of ways to avoid scurvy, and just way too goddamn many linguistic knots. Citrus taxonomy quite convoluted, and a field people are still researching and straightening out today. Something sweet to think about the next time you need a fruity friend.