Real Food Encyclopedia | Kumquats
From their diminutive size to their cheery color and fun-to-say name, kumquats (Fortunella japonica) are as cute as a button. Pick up a basket of these wee citrus-that-aren’t-citrus (more on that below) and dream of warmer climates.
Fun facts about kumquats:
- Kumquat trees are popular as displays and gifts for Chinese Lunar New Year — the plant symbolizes wealth and good luck.
- Kumquats are in the Rutaceae (rue) family, which includes the Citrus genus and all of its corresponding familiar fruits. But kumquats technically are not citrus, although they share obvious citrus-y attributes. Rather, they are classified in a genus all their own, Fortunella, named after noted kumquat importer and tea-secret thief Robert Fortune.
What to look for when buying kumquats
The majority of U.S. citrus, or citrus-like foods such as kumquats, are grown in Florida. Most of the kumquats we see at markets in this country are the bright-orange Nagami variety. They are oval shaped and between two and three inches long. Look for kumquats without mushy or brown spots, and if you can, choose fruit that aren’t tinged with green, as these tend to be more bitter.
Kumquats grow on adorable small trees that have dark, glossy green leaves and beautiful fragrant flowers, and come in several varieties. The Nagami (F. margarita) is by far the most common kumquat type seen in markets in the U.S. Kumquats are currently cultivated in China, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, Japan, Greece, Florida and California. So if you’re lucky, you might find them at farmers’ markets in Florida and California.
Sustainability of kumquats
Kumquats are a majorly niche fruit in the United States, so their environmental impact is minimal. However, it is extremely difficult to find organic kumquats. Kumquats are susceptible to most citrus pests (except for citrus canker, to which they are highly resistant), so one can only speculate that pesticide use is common in most available kumquats. The PAN Pesticide Database has this list of pesticides used on kumquats in California. As you can see, there are quite a few. If you are lucky enough to find organic kumquats, snap them up.
In Florida, citrus production is part of a larger water use problem. Citrus and strawberry farmers spray their crops with immense amounts of water in years when their crops are in danger of freezing. This kind of excessive water use causes aquifer depletion and sinkholes. Agricultural irrigation and water use (for things like lawn watering) in Florida are also causing saltwater to infiltrate local aquifers.
Like most other citrus(y) fruits, kumquats are in season in the winter — usually from December through March.
Kumquats are native to Southeast China where they were first domesticated and can still be found growing wild. The earliest description of the fruit comes from Ancient Chinese scholar Han Yen-chih’s “Monograph of Oranges,” in 1178 BCE.
The kumquat was brought from China to Japan where they became, and still remain, quite popular. In 1846, Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist, brought kumquats to London. Later, Fortune would be sent back to China by the British East India Company to steal Chinese trade secrets about tea production. Kumquats made their way to the southern U.S. around 1850.
Kumquats store well — kept in the refrigerator, they’ll keep for at least 10 days.
- Kumquats are the only citrus(y) fruit that can be eaten peel and all; indeed, kumquat peels are sweeter than the tart juice inside.
- Kumquats are usually eaten raw, made into preserves or candied. The peel and the pulp together make a lovely sweet-tart contrast, and although they aren’t very common, they are actually a versatile fruit, performing well in both sweet and savory dishes.
- On the sweet side, they pair beautifully with chocolate, vanilla, mint and other fruit, like pears and cranberries.
- For savory dishes, think about pairing kumquats with duck, pork, chicken, fish, cheese, greens and grains. Try slicing kumquats very thinly (removing any seeds) and tossing them into kale salads, along with toasted sunflower seeds or almonds. Or add sliced kumquats into your favorite grain salad.
- Kumquats are delicious as a topping for fish (like salmon) and make a great chutney to pair with hard, salty cheeses.
- For dessert, kumquat-lemongrass ice cream sounds fantastic, as does this kumquat upside down cake.
- You can even make tea out of fresh kumquats, which is said to help heal those nasty winter colds.
Kumquats make excellent preserves. Here is a lovely kumquat marmalade from David Lebovitz, or if you’d like to be a bit more experimental, check out this kumquat habanero marmalade. Here’s another marmalade recipe which preserves the whole fruit rather than slicing them. Here is an excellent recipe for candied kumquats that will keep in your refrigerator for at least three months. If you’d like to try a kumquat liqueur, commercially produced versions are available, but you can easily make your own.
There is a lot of good stuff in tiny kumquats. They are packed with fiber and Vitamin C and are low in calories. They’ve got some calcium, Vitamin A, riboflavin, iron, manganese and potassium, to boot. In traditional Chinese medicine, kumquats are said to help with sore throats, excessive phlegm and coughs.
Top photo by raptorcaptor/Adobe Stock.