Aged tangerine peel is a great remedy for many ailments.
Tangerine peel is a must-have in the traditional Chinese kitchen – used to imbue robust stews with an elegant citrus note, or lend a whisper of freshness to dessert. Besides its flavour-boosting properties, it’s also an efficient purger of gaminess in meat.
But to the Cantonese, the dried peel’s appeal goes even further, especially when it’s aged and even more if it’s over 50 years old. Aged tangerine peel is revered as a prized medicinal herb with a current market rate of S$6,000 per tael or 38 grams. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), tangerine peel is as lauded as ginseng among Chinese sinsehs; it is a well-established remedy for cough as it is believed to expel excessive phlegm from the lungs, and aids digestion.
Not all tangerines make good peel, however. There are many farms in southern China, stretching from Zhejiang to Guangzhou, that grow cultivars such as cha zhi gan, mi gan, and fu ju, but the best peels are said to come from Xinhui. This district in Guangzhou has a unique cultivar known as dahong pao, a peel that is often referred to in most Chinese medical books and literature.
However, the production of aged tangerine peel is in dire straits. Before the Cultural Revolution, the orchards spanned some 140,000 acres. By the early 1990s, this dwindled to a mere 700 acres. A surge in demand in recent years has seen the plantations rebound to some 2,000 acres.
Aside from scarcity, the other more critical factor is age. Like wine, the older the peel, the better its taste, aroma, and body. Those under 10 years of age are simply called tangerine peel; those 10 years and older are referred to as aged peel. Very old peel can reach 50 to 100 years; naturally they are very rare and very, very expensive. At such antiquity, the colour of the peel takes on a beautiful dark golden brown and its scent becomes robust, earthy and aromatic.
Typically, the fruit is harvested when the outer layer turns orange at the end of autumn. After the peel is removed, it is set to dry and “ferment” for about three years before being taken to the market. You can make your own “aged” peel by simply storing them. Remember, the peel need to “breathe”, so do not store them in airtight containers. Instead, store them in a dry and cool environment for the fermentation process to continue. The only “maintenance” required is to take them out once in a while for a thorough sunning to get rid of fungus and bacteria.
In recent years, the farmers have also created a by-product by harvesting the fruit in its various stages of formation. The meat is removed carefully without damaging the peel. Good quality pu’er tea leaves are then stuffed into the peel, which are dried and made to undergo the fermenting process. The end product is marketed as aged tangerine pu’er tea, which is becoming popular with tea-drinkers at hip tea joints.
How to distinguish aged tangerine peel
1. Look at the appearance. It usually comes in three petals folding slightly outward. The peel should be thick with a pale-yellow pith. The tangerine peel loses its lustrous shine as it ages.
2. The aged tangerine peel from Xinhui has a reddish-brown appearance and is dotted with obvious pores.
3. Newly harvested tangerine peel is pliant and soft while aged peel breaks easily.
4. Tangerine peel that is below 10 years of age has a slightly citrus smell while those above 10 years will have less of the citrus note but carry a full-bodied or “sweet fruity” fragrance. As the tangerine peel ages, a camphor scent will emerge which becomes more obvious when one scratches the peel.
5. A good tangerine peel will not disintegrate even after prolonged cooking, and the taste of the peel will last even after many rounds of infusion during tea-making.
6. There is a pleasant aftertaste without any bitterness.
7. Older folks may like to add aged tangerine peel to their drinks for good health. The colour the peel imparts to the tea differs according to its age: For those eight years and below, the colour appears green yellow; while 9-20 year-old peels give off a brownish yellow hue. Twenty-year-old peel produces a brown-hued clear liquid with a hint of aged fruity flavour, while those above 30 years will give the drink a light camphor note.
A version of this story first appeared in The Business Times on January 26, 2018, with the headline, ‘Orange Is The New Prize’.