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August 1, 2021

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Summer’s thirst-quenching fruit

Back in the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280), when Cao Cao, founder of Wei Kingdom (220-265), led his troops on a hard military expedition against Zhang Xiu during an exceptionally hot summer, the burning sun completely sapped the army’s energy.

With little water, Cao worried he might lose the battle. He told his troops, “I know there is a forest of plum trees ahead. They are big and delicious. Let us hurry to reach that destination.” The very thought of the sweet and sour plums rejuvenated the morale of the soldiers and pushed them onward.

A Chinese idiom from this story is wang mei zhi ke — quenching the thirst by thinking of plums. It describes people who are trying to comfort themselves with fake illusions.

Summer is the season to enjoy fresh plums, especially after the Plum Rain season. The tart fruits arrive just in time to rescue the appetite from the hot weather.

Fresh plums

Plums are sweet and sour. Some varieties like green plum can be very tart, while others are mostly sweet and pleasant to eat directly as fruit.

Lizi is a popular plum fruit in China during the summer season. The small, dark-colored fruit has a great balance of sweetness and tartness, plus extra juicy flesh.

Pickled lizi is a simple recipe to use up the extra stock. Select the crispier fruits and cut a cross on the top (or smash it so the crack can take in the sugar and salt), then soak it in hot water for about 15 minutes and rinse thoroughly — which removes the bitter and astringent taste. Add salt and sugar (in a ratio of 1:10), seal it in a container, let it marinate in the refrigerator overnight and the sweet pickle is ready to serve as a special side dish.

Lizi can also be made into various plum candies like jiayingzi, or dried plums.

In classic Chinese poetry, the idiom tou tao bao li means the gift of a peach will be reciprocated by the gift of a plum.

If you visit fruit shops or supermarkets this summer, you’ll notice more varieties of fresh plums. Fengtangli, which translates as honey sugar plum, is becoming quite popular this year. It’s a small green plum with a smooth peel, crunchy texture and sweet taste with a hint of pleasant sourness — quite surprising when compared to regular green plums. The tart taste doesn’t get onto your teeth like other sour fruits.

Fengtangli is rather expensive when compared to lizi; about 300 grams of it costs around 20 yuan.

Sanhuali is a reddish-brown plum variety with red flesh. Its texture is crunchy, it’s more sour than fengtangli and the pit is small.

Freshly picked plums are often hard and crunchy in texture, with a higher level of tartness. Over time, the plums can become softer and sweeter.

Plum wine and snacks

The especially tart green plums that come into full season in August are teeth killers and seldom eaten as fresh fruit. Commonly, the green plums are made into pickles, jams, snacks and drinks — both alcoholic and non-alcoholic.

Green plum jam is a simple recipe to serve with toast in the morning. Simply boil the plums in salted water and remove the pit (the salt can remove some of the astringent flavor), put them in a deep pot and add enough rock sugar in a ratio of 1:4.

Simmer and stir constantly. It’s difficult to prevent the plum sauce from sticking to the pot, and the jam is ready when the texture is thick with little water left and the color turns amber.

If you’re making a bigger batch, remember to sanitize the glass bottles in advance by boiling them in water for 15 minutes and air drying them completely. The sealed jars of green plum sauce will last longer if refrigerated.

In addition to serving as a spread on toast, green plum sauce can be served with rich meats like Cantonese-style roast duck and pork or braised pork ribs, adding the acidity needed to balance the richness.

Plum wine is one of the most popular sweet alcoholic beverages. It can be served chilled in summer and warm in winter, and can cleanse the palate after eating rich and greasy food.

During plum season, many people enjoy making plum wine at home, using fresh green plums, rock sugar and liquor with an alcohol content between 25 and 45 percent.

The first step is to handpick the plums and discard the ones with “white hair,” or damage, on the surface.

Rinse and thoroughly clean them, and set them aside to completely air dry. Then use a toothpick to remove the pedicle and poke a few holes so the juice is able to get out. In a sterilized glass container, arrange the plums and rock sugar one layer over another, pour the liquor into the plums, seal them and store in a cool, dark place.

It’s important to keep your hands clean and dry during the process.

Plum wine can be enjoyed over ice in summer. If it’s too intense, it can be diluted with ice water.

Preserved and dried plums are treats to boost your appetite or stop nausea. The main difference between preserved and dried fruit is the use of honey or sugar in the preserving process. The traditional method simmers the fresh fruit in honey to remove moisture, but these days sugar is substituted to cut costs.

The difference between guofu and mijian is that guofu is preserved fruit that’s been dried after boiling in sugar or honey, while mijian is glossy and juicy.

There are many varieties of preserved plums in China, like huamei and wumei. Huamei is more on the sour side, and the ones that look dry and even mummified with white powder on the surface are especially sour. Often, huamei is made with licorice, which gives it a salty taste.

Wumei, the dark plum, is less sour and has more flesh. It’s a key ingredient in suanmeitang, the popular summertime sour plum drink, but is less common as a snack.

Plum slices, or meipian, are thin sheets of pressed preserved plums that are easier to eat and carry in a bag.


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