I first saw a Buddha’s hand citron in a museum. The graceful, curly tipped fingers of the fruit had been carved during the Qing Dynasty in milk-colored jade. The carving’s complexity was astonishing and I was equally amazed to learn this was not a fantasy object but the representation of a real fruit.
Since seeing that jade art work, I’ve held, smelled, eaten and “drank” Buddha’s hand citron.
In Japan, China and Korea, the fruit’s “fingers” are thought to resemble the boneless, elegant hands of the Buddha. Fresh, highly scented Buddha’s hand citrons were taken to temples as offerings or were placed on family altars at home instead of flowers to scent a room and to bring good luck, especially during new year celebrations. In Chinese, the fruit is called fo-shou, similar to the words for fortune/blessings and longevity. The fingers of the fruit may be splayed or close together depending on the variation/cultivar grown.
It used to be difficult to find Buddha’s hand citron (Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis) in the US. Even in Los Angeles, I couldn’t find a Buddha’s hand fruit no matter how hard I searched in Chinatown and Little Tokyo. Now, Buddha’s hand citron is grown commercially in California and my husband has grown a small, fruit-bearing tree here in the Pacific Northwest (it graced our bedroom in winter and you can see one of its fruits in the blue and gold cup below). In Seattle, even "regular" supermarkets stock it between late October and January.
The smell of Buddha’s hand citron is unique and powerful: sharp, resinous (almost pine-y) with the best attributes of oranges, limes and lemons. When you eat the candied peel of a Buddha’s hand there’s also a distinct floral taste present. Each year in November and December, I buy several fresh Buddha’s hands to scent my house. The fruit lasts for weeks and puts out a potent aroma, on a par with a strong perfume diffuser, candle or bowl of potpourri.
Buddha’s hand citron is all peel and pith, no juice. What's interesting is that the pith is sweet, not bitter, and is loaded with Vitamin C. Buddha's hand peel is often candied and is used to scent teas and vodkas (simply place whole “fingers” in a bottle of vodka for a month as I do). I also cook a divine (if I say so myself) marmalade from the whole fruit. If you can’t find Buddha's hand tea or if Korean honey citron tea is too sweet for you, simply put a dollop of Buddha's hand marmalade in the tea pot while brewing tea leaves. Next time I make babka, I’ll use layers of white chocolate and Buddha’s hand citron marmalade to flavor it.
Many of you may think you're unfamiliar with Buddha’s hand citron but you encounter aspects of it VERY often in all types of toiletries and perfumes: limonene is an extraction from citron (among other citrus sources).
TIP: When you buy Buddha’s hand citrus, look for fresh, firm fruit with a vibrant color (and no brown-tipped fingers or dull skin). To release the glorious scent, rinse the fruit under running water to remove the shiny wax coating some growers use. Also, since most fruit is chilled in U.S. markets, you can't properly judge the aroma of individual fruits till you rinse them and bring them to room temperature (but I've had very few duds over the years).
If you have a Buddha's hand citron story...do share!
Note: all photos by the author with the exception of the jade carving, Qing Dynasty/Qianlong Period, via Sotheby's. If your local museum has a collection of Chinese jades, chances are good you might see an example of a carved Buddha's hand citron.