SHANGHAI people are famous for having a sweet tooth, but as the heat and humidity of summer descend upon the city, fruits with a sour tang come into their own.
The streets brim with the somewhat tart, appetizing fragrance of Chinese bayberries, or yangmei. Large baskets of the crimson fruit can be seen in fruit shops across the city.
Mei (梅) is the Chinese word for berries and plums. Yangmei, along with plums and prunes, are considered a quick antidote for appetites sapped by summer weather.
Chinese bayberry (yangmei )
Also known as the red bayberry, yangmei is widely cultivated in eastern Asia, especially in south-central regions of China.
The bayberry trees favor acidic soils and can grow up to 20 meters in height.
China has a long history enjoying this fruit. The dark red berries with knobby surfaces have a distinctive sweet-tart flavor, set against a soft texture.
Each berry has a single seed in the center. In China, the seeds, leaves, and roots of the plant are also used for medicinal purposes, and the bark of the tree is used as a yellow dye.
The berries contain thiamine, riboflavin, carotene, minerals, dietary fiber and high levels of vitamin C. To some, they rank as a “superfood.”
Yangmei berries may carry the larva of the fruit fly. In the breeding season, fruit flies are attracted to the fragrant aroma of the berries. Eggs are laid that hatch into worms that feed on the fruit. It’s important to soak the berries in salt water before eating to rid them of any infestation.
In addition to eating fresh yangmei as it is, the berries are also used in various dishes, snacks and beverages.
Yangmei wine is a classic Chinese fruit wine that infuses the ripe berries in white liquor or glutinous rice wine, with sugar and honey added to taste. The recipe has existed since the late Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368).
Bayberry “soup” is a quick dessert in summer, requiring only the berries and some sugar. After rinsing, the berries are arranged in a single layer and sprinkled with sugar. Then another layer is added and the process repeated. The mixture is left to sit for four hours so that the juice of the berries is extracted.
In a pot, the berries and their juice are added to a covering of water and brought to the boil. The mixture is simmered over low heat for an hour, then left to cool before bottling and storing in the fridge.
To serve, a few tablespoons of sauce and berries are put in a bowl filled with chilled water.
The berries can also be turned into candy by boiling them in sugar water and then baking them to remove moisture. Sugar coats the final product.
For those who are adventurous in eating, the berries can also be served with light soy sauce, with saltiness complementing sweetness.
Wang mei zhi ke (望梅止渴) is a Chinese idiom that translates into “quenching the thirst by thinking of plums.”
The story behind this idiom dates back to the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280), when Cao Cao, founder of Wei Kingdom, led his troops on a hard military expedition against Zhang Xiu during an exceptionally hot summer. The burning sun sapped the army’s energy and there was little water to be had.
Worried that he might lose the battle if his troops could reach a strategic point, Cao told his men, “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.
The story of the “Fake Tangery” is told in Liu Yiqing’s “Anecdotes of This World,” which is from the Southern Dynasties period (AD 420-589). The idiom is used to describe people who are trying to comfort themselves with fake illusions.
Green plums are very tart and seldom eaten as is. They are commonly used to make pickled plums, jams, dried snacks and drinks. The fruits come into full season in August.
For a simple green plum jam to spread on toast, boil the green plums and remove the flesh. Put them in a deep pot and add sugar in the ratio of 250 grams for every kilo of plums. Bring the mixture to a boil and then stir over low heat until the consistency thickens. The jam can be kept in the fridge for about a month.
Green plum wine is another classic Chinese beverage with a story that goes back to the Three Kingdoms period.
In Chapter 21 of “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” the historical novel by Luo Guanzhong, Cao and Liu Bei, the founder of the Shu Han Kingdom, sit down to discuss contemporary heroes while boiling green plums for wine.
To make green plum wine, select plums with no damaged skin and soak in water to remove some of the astringent taste. When the plum surfaces are dry, remove all stem ends and poke holes in the plums with a toothpick. They let them infuse with rock sugar in white liquor. The wine is ready in three months, and the flavor improves with storage time.
In China, lizi (李子) is a popular plum in summer. It can be eaten as a fruit or made into various plum candies.
The small, dark-colored fruit is both sweet and tart, with a very meaty flesh. It is widely cultivated across China.
Pickled lizi is a classic cold dish of fresh plums seasoned with salt, sugar and chili powder.
Prunes, or dried plums, are called jiayingzi (加应子) in China. They are made with lizi plums.