Arbutus, Myrica rubra, Chinese cherry, Chinese strawberry, yumberry, red bayberry, waxberry, in Japanese yamamomo, and in Mandarin yangmei. This unique fruit has many names, but only one tells the whole story.
This week I went to Tekka market to stock up on supplies and noticed several vendors selling a fruit I had never seen before. About the size of a lychee, deep red, with a dimpled skin. Unlike most fruit at the market, it was packaged, with a label that read “Arbutus: Also known a Myrica Rubra or Chinese Cherry.” Though normally adventurous, I was in a bit too much of a rush to stop and explore a new fruit, but repetition is key in trying a new food, so when this fruit appeared yet again at my favorite fruit stall, I couldn’t resist.
The uncle told me the fruit was very special, imported from China, and was only in season this time of year. When I had paid for all my purchases and was about to walk away, uncle added, “oh, and be sure to wash of them in salt water before eating.” “Salt water?” “Yes, salt water.”
When I got home, I dutifully threw some rock salt into a bowl, filled it with water, and plunged the big berries in. I put the groceries away, drained and rinsed off the fruit, and thought nothing more about it.
Now normally when bringing home a new food, I hit the Internet to figure out what to do with it. But this time, for some reason, I went ahead and sunk my teeth in, uninformed.
Even though the skin of the fruit is dimpled and rough, I was expecting to bite into something like a stone fruit––where you break the skin and, hopefully, the sweet juice bursts onto your taste buds. Instead, I got a mouthful of tiny kernels, like baby corn or some sort of micro-pomegranate that no one has invented yet. The kernels then exploded with a taste that was, indeed, very cherry, but thicker and a little astringent. Cherry and port wine reduction maybe, or unsweetened pomegranate concentrate. Or maybe it would have tasted like something else altogether if I hadn’t seen the name, “Chinese Cherry.”
Later that night, I did eventually get around to searching for some information on this strange fruit, and what I learned is that names matter.
Arbutus, the first name on the package, was no help, and Myrica Rubra just told me the plant was an evergreen shrub. Next, Chinese cherry. Nothing. But I did find Chinese strawberry, an interesting name for the texture of the fruit, I guess, but not its origins.
Next I tried “how to eat myrica rubra” and got some surprising results. Chinese bayberry. Red bayberry. Can I eat red bayberry while pregnant? Should elderly eat it? And most often, to wash or not to wash? There seems to be some debate on this issue: salting cleanses the fruit but can spoil the taste, so some prefer to eat at their own risk. Risk? Of what?
Then I realized that I had overlooked good old Wikipedia:
“Myrica rubra, also called yangmei (Chinese: 杨梅; pinyin: yángméi; Cantonese: yeung4 mui4; Shanghainese: [jɑ̃.mɛ][tones?]), yamamomo (Japanese: yamamomo; kanji: 山桃; katakana: ヤマモモ, literally, “mountain peach”), Chinese Bayberry, Japanese Bayberry, Red Bayberry, Yumberry, Waxberry, or Chinese strawberry tree (and often mistranslated from Chinese as arbutus) is a subtropical tree grown for its sweet, crimson to dark purple-red, edible fruit…It is native to eastern Asia, mainly in China, where it has been grown for at least 2000 years.”
The Chinese name “yangmei” got me to the Shanghai Ginger Guy’s “Eat the yangmei, eat the yangmei, eat the yangmei” which led me to “Waxberries and, its lovely worms.”
And now I know: yangmei is a seasonal fruit, available only once a year. Its tastes lies somewhere between a berry and a ripe stone fruit. It’s texture is unique, and as it turns out, those surprising little kernels are also perfect nesting places for all manner of tiny insects. The salting process draws them out of their lairs, so we can enjoy the deliciousness bug-free.
More importantly, I learned that if you call a food by the name it’s called in its native land, a world of information is suddenly at your fingertips. Yes, this special fruit may taste kind of like a cherry and look kind of like a strawberry, and is in fact related to the bayberry. But I’m going to keep calling it a yangmei and enjoy it for what it is. And I’m going to salt it first.