Sweet snacks from preserved fruit

FOR centuries, methods of food preservation have helped extend the shelf life of perishable foods and, at the same time, created very popular and tasty snacks worth waiting for.

FOR centuries, methods of food preservation have helped extend the shelf life of perishable foods and, at the same time, created very popular and tasty snacks worth waiting for.

Preserved candied fruits, known as guofu (果脯) or mijian (蜜饯), are popular snacks with people of all ages. They began with the goal of finding a way to keep summer and autumn fruits into the winter.

Originally, fruit preserves were the preserve of the imperial courts. In ancient times, emperors wanted to enjoy fruit all year around, but transportation was too slow to deliver fresh fruit to the capital from the warmer southern regions.

Smart cooks came up with the idea of soaking fruit in honey to seal it from the air and prevent deterioration. When they then tried to boil the fruit in honey, a new snack was created.

As a legacy from the imperial court kitchens of the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, Beijing is still considered the best city for tasting a wide range of authentic and traditional preserved fruit.

More sugar, please

The main difference between preserved and dried fruit is the use of honey or sugar in the preserving process. Traditionally, preserved fruit are produced by simmering fresh fruit in honey to remove moisture. Sugar is often substituted for honey nowadays to cut factory production costs.

Selecting the best fruit is crucial in making mijian and guofu. The fruit must be ripe but still dense enough to withstand long boiling.

Different varieties have specific requirements. Apricots should be golden, with moderate hardness, while apples with low moisture content and loose flesh are best.

Once fruit has been pitted and peeled, it is smoked in sulfur to prevent oxidation of the tannin. It is then boiled in a highly concentrated sugar syrup.

Not all candied or preserved fruit is sticky in texture. Though the words guofu and mijian are interchangeable, guofu is more commonly used to describe preserved fruit that is dried after boiling in sugar or honey, while mijian refers to the more juicy and glossy versions that aren’t dried after cooking.

Some Chinese guofu have a thin granulated sugar coating, which is more common in southern provinces like Fujian and Guangdong.

Yangmei gan, or candied Chinese bayberry, is made by boiling the fresh berries in sugar water, then baking the berries to remove moisture. A sugar coating is added for extra sweetness and texture. This snack is very popular, especially in Yangtze River Delta region.

Guofu and mijian are most commonly made with green plums, apricots and peaches. But the preservation process has also been extended to more unconventional ingredients, like winter gourd, ginger, water chestnuts, lotus roots and olives.

Tangjiangpian (糖姜片), or candied ginger, is a specialty in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province. The recipe, which originated in the Ming Dynasty, is favored for tits sweet and spicy flavor as well as for the health benefits of ginger.

For the process, fresh, tender ginger roots are rinsed, peeled and thinly sliced. Then they are tossed in granulated sugar and dried under a hot sun. The process is repeated several times until all the moisture from the ginger is gone.

The peelings of orange and grapefruit can also be made into candied preserves.

The process requires separating the outer zest of the citrus from the bitter white pith. The peeling is then boiled in water and cut into thin slices, which are subsequently boiled in a syrup of equal parts water and sugar. When the peelings take on a transparent appearance, they are removed from the syrup and spread out on a flat surface to cool. Finally, they are rolled in granulated sugar.

Tangerine peel is used to make sun-dried chenpi (陈皮), which is used in traditional Chinese medicine and in cooking. In Guangdong, jiuzhi chenpi

(九制陈皮) is a snack made by processing the dried tangerine peel with licorice root and sugar.

Guofu and mijian don’t have to be super sweet. More sour varieties are considered to be excellent remedies to ease nausea and improve appetite.

Various preserved plums, like huamei (话梅), wumei (乌梅) and jiayingzi (加应子), and hawthorn berries are the most common varieties of more sour preserved fruit sold in supermarkets and convenience stores.

The sourest of the huamei preserved plums is one that looks quite mummified, with white powder on a caramel-colored surface. Made of green plums, it is infused with the flavor of licorice, giving it a distinctive saltiness that is said to stimulate salivation.

Wumei, or black preserved plum, is less sour and a bit meatier. It is made from Chinese plums, or Prunus mume. This variety is also an element of traditional Chinese medicine and a key ingredient in the popular summertime beverage of sour plum juice.

Rounding out the plums, hanhuamei (韩话梅), cream huamei (奶油话梅) and valentine huamei (情人梅) are sweeter and softer.

Guofu and mijian are often used in classic dishes such as babaofan (八宝饭), or eight-treasure rice, and zongzi with preserved honey dates as filling.

Of course, anything dripping with sweetness comes under scrutiny in today’s health-conscious world. That’s also true of preserved fruit.

Original recipes for fruit preserves don’t rank high with health standards that frown on too much sugar. For people advised to reduce sugar consumption, it’s best to read nutritional labels on fruit snacks.

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