Sat, Nov 11, 2017 - Page 13 News List

Ian’s Table: It’s yellow

Meyer lemons are now locally grown, providing chefs with a huge new range for culinary exploration

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing reporter

Nothing beats grilled fish in its sheer simplicity. Just be sure to get the freshest fish possible.

Photo: Ian Bartholomew

Back in October last year, I wrote about lemons (see Taipei Times, Oct. 1, 2016). It is time to revisit the topic in the wake of a burgeoning interest and increased availability of locally grown sweet yellow-skinned lemons on the market. This is a great boon to culinary diversity in Taiwan, as previously such lemons were almost invariably imported. They are the famous Meyer lemons (or something quite like them), which bring a sweet tartness to the flavor palate and their own very specific qualities to the kitchen and dining room.

Sweet yellow lemons have long been available at upscale grocers in Taiwan, but availability has always been uncertain and prices high. For many applications, local green lemons prove a perfectly adequate substitute, and have the advantage of sometimes coming in organic, unwaxed form. But color can be a problem, as green lemons do not heat well and often release sharp, acidic flavors under the grill or turn an unpalatable brown on the oven. These green lemons are usually of the Eureka variety, which work well enough after fully ripening and turning yellow in temperate climates, but in the hot humidity of Taiwan they remain green until a very late stage of growth when they are virtually unfit to eat.

With the buzz surrounding locally grown sweet yellow-skinned lemons, online foodie magazine NOM (nommagazine.com) published an article about Meyer lemons in September explaining the uses of this new and exciting addition to the Taiwanese pantry.

Drawing heavily on a related article on the US food Web site thekitchn.com (suggesting that the confusion over lemons, their variety and flavors, is not confined to Taiwan), the article lists only one local organic grower, but sweet yellow-skinned lemons are being grown by a number of small farms around the island. I have found many to be of good quality, ideal for dishes such as the French classic tarte citron. Yet they have a robustness, seen in the thicker skin and less rounded body that is suggestive of some cross with Eureka or other type of lemon.

With reservations, let us call these sweet yellow-skinned lemons Meyer lemons. They are certainly distinct from the usual local product and from the cook’s point of view, that is all that matters. Named after Frank Meyer, an agricultural explorer for the US Department of Agriculture, these sweet lemons were brought back from China in the early 1900s. A cross between the lemon and the mandarin orange, the Meyer was used in China as a decorative houseplant, and was introduced as such into the US.

Although Meyer died in Shanghai in 1918, it was not until the 1960s that the plant was widely cultivated, and then only in the citrus growing regions of California and Florida. Before the 1990s, they were not widely available or even known outside these areas, but according to a 2009 US National Public Radio report, it was celebrity entrepreneur Martha Stewart who brought them into the culinary mainstream. Whatever one might feel about the once disgraced figure, if Stewart really did establish the Meyer lemon as part of our pantry, that is a service to all of us who cook.

One of the distinctive characteristics of the Meyer lemon is that the peel is edible. However, this is something I would test out first on any particular batch before serving some lemon peel and tomato salsa to guests. Textures vary, which is why I am happier with the term sweet yellow-skinned lemon, despite the fact that it doesn’t sound particularly attractive.

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