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The Fruit with the Catchiest Name


A while back, my girlfriend and I were invited to a small dinner party. We got to the place and we were treated to a tour of the house by our host, who had just moved into the apartment. The house had a narrow and long balcony that was overlooking the streets below. On the balcony, there were a few large concrete pots filled with an assortment of plants and other greenery. One of these pots had a tall fruit tree in it which I don’t see very often, and it caught my eyes. This plant had a bunch of fruit hanging from its branches - I never even considered growing anything with fruits in our apartment. As usual, though, I don’t really linger on shrubs or trees I see, so I forgot about it. After dinner, dessert was being served. Along with cake and other treats, they served a bowl of the fruit that grew on the plant that caught my attention earlier. We started talking about the fruit, which in our native language is simply known as a ‘Chinese Orange’. I figured that it was just a common name for it and I wondered what is its real name. Today, any question can be solved in mere moments - we looked up the fruit, and it turned out to be a Kumquat.

The Kumquat - by Loadmaster.

After that evening, the little orange-colored ball of zest and citric acid left its flavor on my tongue. The kumquat stayed on my mind for a long while. It kept popping in my head every once in a while. Even weeks later I would still find myself thinking about the little thing, trying to remember other occasions in which I got to eat it. I remembered a day from my childhood when I was maybe six years old. My mom dragged me along to meet one of her friends. I got to play outside with my mom’s friend’s kid. I remember being pretty bored, having to spend the day with a kid I didn’t know. Then we walked around the house and he showed me that they had a tree with tiny little oranges that you eat without having to peel them. I distinctly remember feeling bored up to that moment, then trying a piece of fruit only to spit it out because it was too sour for me. I remember sinking back into boredom seconds later. But the encounter with the kumquat tree remained as a point of interest in that memory. I even remember the first time I heard the word - Kumquat. It is a pleasant word to say, so it’s easy to remember - I was somewhere around the age of twelve, playing a video game on the computer my family had. The game was ‘Leisure Suit Larry 7: Love for Sail’. At that age, I was definitely not the target audience for this game. In the game a couple of kumquats were displayed as part of a bush shaped like a sheep or some other animal, the kumquats being a representation of said bush’s naughty bits.

I felt curious to know more about the kumquat, and I had a feeling that it won’t leave my mind unless I do something about it, so I decided to look into the metaphorical roots of this captivating fruit.

The Kumquat, scientifically known as the Citrus japonica (also known as the Fortunella, occasionally), is a type of cold-hardy citrus tree. That means that it is a close relative of the orange, which is easily discernible, and that it’s able to grow in much harder conditions, compared to its orange-colored bigger brother. Its fruit looks like a small orange, except sometimes it has a more elongated shape. The fruit is usually somewhere between sweet and sour, though different types can lean more towards either end of the scale. The plant is a slow-growing, evergreen large shrub or medium tree (depends on the species) and it can reach 4.5m tall. It presents dark, glossy leaves, white flowers that resemble other citrus flowers (I couldn’t recognize one if I saw it) and some variants may have thorny branches. A single tree can produce hundreds, even thousands of pieces of fruit each year. Due to the fact that it has dark strong green colored leaves and contrasting dots of the orange fruit, along with the fact that it can grow in a variety of conditions, be it potted or grounded, make it a popular choice to grow outside homes and apartments.

As I’ve mentioned before, the kumquat can grow in harder conditions than other citrus can. This means that you can cultivate and grow it on a larger scale in many different areas. The island of Corfu, in Greece, is famous for growing and selling this fruit in many forms. But the earliest historical reference of this fruit is in no other place than China. The kumquat is mentioned in Chinese literature as early as the 12th century. The sour-sweet fruit did not appear in Europe until the very specific year of 1846, in which Robert Fortune (hence, Fortunella), a botanist and avid plant-collector, has returned from one of his adventurous trips to China. He brought back with him a stolen recipe for tea and a large collection of plants, including the precious kumquat. From Europe, getting the kumquat to America was relatively a short trip, and thus the Kumquat has found its way there, as well.

Not only the fruit originates in China, but the name of the fruit stems from the far east as well, which makes sense when you think about it. The word Kumquat is an Englishization of the Cantonese word ‘gam-gwat’, which literally means ‘golden orange’. The kumquat has fun catchy names all around the far east  - in Japanese, the kumquat is known as a Kinkan, in Hokkien (a language spoken in southeastern China) it is known as the Gim-gam, and in Vietnamese, it is simply called a Cam-quat, or a Kim-quat.

Dried Candied Kumquat - Max Pixel

There are many ways to prepare and eat this fruit, but most variants of the Kumquat can be consumed raw, without even having to remove the peel. I thought it was weird that you eat the fruit with the peel, but I guess I was wrong - some people said that they eat the peel and throw away the flesh, claiming that the peel is almost pure zest and the flesh is just sour. Naturally, other people have made fun of the people who only eat the peels. Some types of Kumquats are more bitter and are mainly used for making jellies and marmalade. For a second there, I thought I came up with the original idea of making an alcoholic drink with the fruit and name it Kumquacello, but I was wrong - many recipes can be found on the internet. Some people have mentioned that they like to mash the Kumquat with some chili peppers, to create a sweet and hot sauce, which sounds like a weird idea that I would be willing to try. And of course, the Chinese have the most original use for this fruit - I read somewhere that they put the fruit in a jar filled with salt, bury it for some time, then boil the dehydrated fruit along with the salt and drink it - it is supposed to be good for a sore throat.

Now, to me, one of the main reasons I could not stop thinking about this little sweet-and-sour orange-looking-but-not-an-orange fruit is its name. Kumquat. I can’t stop saying it, I can’t stop chanting it in my mind. I Could not get away from it, even when I was doing normal everyday things. If I was taking shower, driving around or waiting for the elevator in my building, I heard myself repeat the word in my head. It came to be like a wait cursor or a loading animation for my mind. So now, whenever I’m waiting for something, my mind turns to kumquats. If you find yourself somewhere like standing in line for something with me, don’t be surprised if I start talking about kumquats for no apparent reason.

Additional notes and sources can be found here.

The pictures I used in the article have all been labeled for reuse:

  • The photo of two kumquats in the article is by Loadmaster.
  • The photo of the dried candied kumquats is from Max Pixel.

Thank you for reading,