Plums in Chinese Cooking



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February is the month for plums. In Japan, the streets are awash in plum blossoms, while Americans celebrate National Plum Pudding Day on February 12th. Okay, it's true that modern plum puddings are more likely to contain an assortment of sultanas and currants than plums, but you get the idea. The beginning of the spring season is the perfect time to examine the role of the plum in Chinese food and culture. 

About the Ancient Chinese Plum

According to several historical sources, the Chinese were probably the first to start cultivating plums. Of course, these weren't Prunus domestica, the purplish-blue plums most commonly found in western supermarkets today. Instead, they were the species Prunus salicina, also known as Japanese plums. Larger, sweeter, and juicier, Japanese plums are more pointed at the ends and have a sort of "orangey-red" color. They have been available in the United States since the late nineteenth century. Another popular Old World plum is the Damson, Prunus institia, thought to have originated in Damascus. 

Plums and Chinese Culture

There are numerous tributes to the plum in Chinese culture. Confucius likens their beauty to a loved one in the following verse:

"The branches of the aspen plum
To and fro they sway
How can I not think of her?
But home is far away," 

Lao-Tse, the famous Chinese philosopher, is thought to have been born under a plum tree, a lucky occurrence since the Chinese believe plums symbolize good fortune. As for the fruit itself, it rates a mention in Legends of Three Kingdoms, a Chinese historical novel. There is a passage where the famous warrior Cao Cao boasts of the time he persuaded his soldiers to move quickly out of a dangerous area by telling them that a tree laden with juicy plums lay straight ahead.

Plums in Today's Culture

Today, plums are known and loved the world over. You'll find wild plums growing along the roadside in North America, while cherry plums are popular in Europe. Not surprisingly for such a popular fruit, the plum has often been extolled in writing. Keats praised their sweetnesswhile Little Jack Horner pulled one out of his pie in the famous nursery rhymeAnd who can forget those dancing Sugar Plum Fairies in "The Nutcracker Ballet?" The plum has even made its way into everyday language: we use the expression "plum good" to describe something that is high in quality.   

In Hawaii, you can snack on "plum crackseed," which are - preserved plum seeds seasoned with licorice, sugar, and salt. According to Kathy Durham, former About Guide to Hawaii, the Chinese introduced the Hawaiians to preserved seeds when they immigrated to Hawaii over one-hundred years ago. She adds that crackseed is a local nickname that "comes from biting on the seed to crack it open, blending the flavors of the seed (usually bitter) with the flavors of the fruit and other ingredients."  

You can also find preserved seeds at Asian stores. 

Chinese Plum Sauce

While the plum has been an important fruit to the Chinese for centuries, plum sauce has become a modern culinary staple in Chinese cuisine around the world. Plum sauce falls into the sweet and sour category of Chinese condiments, with its sweet and tangy flavor. It is celebrated for its thicker and almost sticky consistency as it will cling to foods without excessive dripping, allowing you to enjoy every last drop. Plum sauce is typically enjoyed as a dipping sauce for fried dishes such as spring rolls, egg rolls, noodles, and even the famous Chinese roast duck (which explains westerners’ “duck sauce” nickname for plum sauce). As with any loved condiment, new applications are being created practically every day by plum sauce lovers.

Chinese Plum Sauce Ingredients and Recipes

Basic plum sauce is made with sweet, ripened plums with the skins removed along with sugar, white or rice vinegar, salt, ginger, and chili peppers. Some recipes also call for other ingredients such as garlic, white wine, or soy sauce. Plum sauce can also contain other sweet fruits like apricots, peaches, or even pineapple. With the endless possible combinations of these flavors and ingredients, there are also endless possibilities to make plum sauce sweeter or more tangy according to your specific tastes.

While bottled plum sauce can be purchased from just about any Asian market and even large name grocery stores, with the right ingredients on hand, fresh plum sauce can be pulled together rather quickly. And it’s worth the slight extra effort.