Susan Russo is a food writer in San Diego. She publishes stories, recipes and photos on her cooking blog, Food Blogga. When she isn't writing about her Italian family back in Rhode Island or life with her husband in Southern California, she can be found milling around a local farmers market buying a lot more food than two people could possibly eat.
One of the best things about going to the local farmers' market is the free samples. It might be succulent strawberries one week, sugary Medjool dates another, and sometimes, it's something memorable, something that packs a wallop, something like kumquats.
I first saw kumquats two years ago at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market; their season begins in January and extends through April. I was immediately attracted to their diminutive size and impossibly cheerful orange color.
"Those are adorable," I said to the farmer. "What are they?"
"Kumquats," he answered.
"What do they taste like?" I asked.
"Here, try for yourself," he said, handing me one.
Unsure how to peel it, I asked, "Do you eat the whole thing?"
"The whole thing," he said.
I bit into the kumquat, and it initially tasted like an orange rind, only sweeter and more delicate. Then my teeth sunk into the juicy flesh and — POW! — a jolt of tartness hit my taste buds. Involuntarily, my cheeks sucked in, my lips puckered, and my eyes watered. (I had a visceral reaction just writing that sentence.)
The farmer looked at me, hesitatingly. I smiled at him and said, "I'll take a basket, please." When you have a sensory experience that explosive, you want to have it again.
Kumquats are either members of the citrus family, or they're not. While kumquats resemble miniature oranges, they are often classified in their own genus, Fortunella. However, many botanists classify kumquats as citrus fruits.
Kumquats are native to China, and their name comes from the Cantonese kam kwat, which means "golden orange." They are a symbol of prosperity and a traditional gift at Lunar New Year, which is why they are a common sight in Chinese households and shops this time of year.
The fruit has been cultivated for centuries in Japan, and in 1846 was introduced to Europe (and subsequently to North America) by horticulturalist Robert Fortune, for whom the species Fortunella was named.
Whether they're in the Fortunella or citrus family, botanists seem to agree that only five or six varieties of kumquats grow throughout the world today. Two types are commonly found in the United States. Though similar in appearance, a Marumi kumquat is round and slightly mild in flavor, while a Nagami kumquat is oval and characteristically sour.
If you're lucky, you might find Meiwa kumquats — larger, spherical fruits that are markedly sweeter and juicier than Nagami kumquats — which are less commonly available in the U.S.
Most supermarkets in the U.S. carry Nagami kumquats from California, Florida and Texas. A Nagami kumquat — an oblong fruit about the size of an olive — has a smooth, shiny rind that ranges from yellow-orange to deep orange. This mildly sweet, edible rind contrasts pleasingly with the kumquat's sour flesh.
All kumquats have tiny seeds that can be removed when sliced — or discreetly spit out if the entire fruit is eaten. The rich glossy green leaves of the kumquat tree are not edible, but are nice for decoration.
When selecting kumquats, look for plump, firm, brightly colored fruit without blemishes or shriveled skin. They can be stored on the countertop for a couple of days; otherwise, place them in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Kumquats can be eaten cold, at room temperature or cooked. Given their innate tartness, they are often "candied" — cooked in a syrup of sugar and water — then used as a topping on desserts such as pound cakes and cheesecakes. They make wonderful marmalades and jams, especially when combined with fruits such as blood oranges, cranberries or pineapple.
Like oranges, kumquats are delicious in savory dishes. Since cooking them mellows their acidity, they make great chutneys and relishes that complement seafood, pork and duck. Simply sliced raw, kumquats add zing to salads of bitter greens such as endive or frisee.
In addition to supermarkets and farmers markets, kumquats can be ordered online from reputable sites such as kumquatgrowers.com (in Florida) and Melissas.com.
Like everything in life, it's all about expectations. If you eat a kumquat expecting demure sweetness, you'll feel sucker-punched by its intense tartness. Of course if you're like me, you'll go back for more.