Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hakka salted limes

The Hakka people in Guangdong province have a delicious cuisine that is only now beginning to be appreciated outside of the isolated hills and valleys that have been their home for generations. 

Far from the bounteous lands and rivers of Jiangsu, this is a land where simple economics demanded that they use every part of the pig and preserve anything that couldn't be eaten immediately. 

Be that as it may, the cuisine they created out 
of hardship almost equals that of the Shakers in its simplicity and ingenuity.

Take the sour little limes that are called calamondins. Native to China and appreciated as far away as the Philippines, they look like Munchkin tangerines but taste more like  kumquats, with their sweet skin and puckery juice. A bottled sauce is made out of them and is used for dipping savory tamales and other foods that require a bit of zip, but if you come across any fresh representatives of this adorable little fruit during the winter months, the Hakka people have come up with a great way to use them.
Fresh calamondins

Called "four season tangerines" (siji ju) in Chinese, the best place to find them tends to be in Filipino markets, or you can grow them yourself if you live in a warm climate. In fact, you might find yourself falling a bit in love with these fragrant little citruses, for they can be used in marmalades, to make homemade variations of limoncello, or even squeezed peel and all into a bracing limeade. 

The Hakka people tend to salt these little guys, which turns them into soft, pungent balls that still are sour but possessing a new level of fragrance. The salted limes are used in a number of different ways, mainly as a flavoring - much like Moroccan salted lemons - for fish, pork, or chicken dishes, where their citrus oils hover over the main ingredients and add a definite layer of freshness. This is especially delicious in winter dishes when fresh greens and fruits are scarce. Unlike salted lemons, though, the entire fruit is used in Hakka dishes. The salt is just dusted off, and then the limes are cut into thin slices before they and their juices are layered into whatever dish needs their assistance.

Salted lime tea
An unusual and particularly delicious beverage can also be made out of these salted limes. It's wonderful on a blustery day, particularly if you have a cough or cold, for the limes, honey, and hot water come together to form a soothing drink. 

Simplicity itself, it consists of just one of the salted limes (with the salt knocked off, of course) that is crushed in large cup. Boiling water is poured over it, more mashing ensues, and then you dribble in a tablespoon or so of local honey. Stir it around, invite the fragrant vapors up into your suffering sinuses, and then cuddle into a warm blanket with this homemade cup of Feel Better.

Hakka salted limes 
Yán sìjì jú 醃四季橘 
Makes one jarful

1 pound fresh calamondin limes
Coarse salt of any kind (Hawaiian, rock, ice cream, etc.)

1. Wash and dry the limes carefully, but leave them whole. Wash and dry a lidded container that is large enough to hold them. Air dry both the limes and the container for a day so that there is not a hint of moisture anywhere; this is especially important if you live in a damp climate, since any moisture will turn to mold here.

Nestled in salt
2. Place the limes in the jar and cover them with the salt. Cover the jar and shake it around to evenly distribute the salt and to fill in any nooks and crannies. Open up the jar and add more salt as needed. 

3. Cover the jar and shake it every couple of days for a week just to make sure that there are no air pockets, and feel free to add additional salt. Place the jar in a cool, dark place and let it sit. Check it after a month. Depending upon how hot it is, how ripe the limes are, and how large they are, the salted limes will be brown and soft in a month or so. 

4. Once they have become completely salted, they will turn into soft, brown, juicy balls. Use very clean and dry chopsticks to fish them out of the salt, and cover up the rest of the limes with the salt while you're at it. The salt will become wet at the bottom of the jar from some of the lime juice, which is quite all right.


  1. I'm confused by this: "moisture will turn to mold here." As far as I know, mold cannot grow in salt. Is the issue that mold can grow inside the lime? I have looked up a few versions of this recipe and they all state that the limes and the jar must be very dry, but I just don't see how they could mold when surrounded by salt.

    1. It's true that mold won't grow in salt, but before the salt cures the limes, these fruits are so juicy inside that will still be susceptible to rot. Mold needs moisture in order to live. So, what you want to do is beat the race with the mold by giving them as little moisture as possible, both in the jar and on the limes' surfaces. Once the limes become saturated with the salt, though, they are safe.

  2. Hello there, I have added several times of coarse salts in the beginning of first 4-5 weeks since I had started preserving this in Mar 2017. Now it is already Nov 2017, I saw there are still salt settled at the bottom of the jar refusing to dissolve. While some water and salt dissoves and thicken into liquid. From time to time I will try to over turn the bottle to ensure left over salt cover the rest of the fruits. My question is how much coase salt should be used? I am afraid the end resule will be too salty for health. Along the way, can we scoop it up for cough remedy? Thank you.

    1. The salt will not fully dissolve. The amount of liquid you get depends upon how much juice is in the limes. You can use the limes at any time for tea. They will not get saltier no matter how much salt you add, but rather stay preserved inside the salt. Be sure to enjoy the limes, not the salt.