Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The case of the Chinese gooseberry

From the name most commonly associated with these little Wookie lookalikes -- the kiwi fruit -- you would think that they originally came from New Zealand. 

However, long before this adopted name, they were called Chinese gooseberries, because their homeland is in the tropical reaches of southern China. 

In their native land, they are the national fruit, which is really saying something, as so many of the world's citrus varieties, as well as apricots, peaches, loquats, pears, walnuts, and my beloved lychees, hail from ancient China

Scoop out the flesh with a spoon
You'd never know that from its Chinese name, though. In Taiwan, where the kiwi has become pretty popular, the fruit's name is nothing more than a transliteration of "kiwi": qiyiguo, which literally means strange or bizarre fruit. I think that the little fuzzballs have managed to overcome this poor marketing ploy quite admirably, and a lot of that has to do with their beautiful jade-hued flesh, a color that is very striking in a fruit bowl or as a garnish.

But like a gorgeous model who also can talk eloquently on The Brothers Karamazov, this fruit's long term appeal lies beneath the surface. They taste like a cross between, yes, a gooseberry and a peach. I personally like the tart layer in its flavor, as it sets off the perfume and luscious sweetness, keeping them from being at all cloying.

And then there are the seeds. Forming a stunning ebony ring around the white, edible center, they are delicately crunchy without drawing too much attention to themselves. They  perfectly set off the little rays of lighter flesh that intersect the darker green like a starburst. 

Pull off the tough ends with the skin
How do you eat them, then? My favorite way is to cut them across at the equator and run a thin metal spoon between the flesh and the skin. This results in the least waste, and is quite a fast way to deal with them. Both the stem and blossom ends are easily pulled off if the fruit is perfectly ripe (see Tips), but can be dug out if the fruit is still slightly underripe. After that, you can slice or dice them, eat them as they are, or add them to desserts.

Do be aware that kiwis possess high levels of enzymes that curdle milk and tenderize meat, and they might cause a reaction in folks who are allergic to pineapples, papayas, and latex. Like pineapples, you can't add raw kiwis to gelatin-based desserts, as it inhibits any gelling.

Aside from enjoying them freshly released from their little hair suits, I like them tossed with a couple of Chinese favorites that don't get enough attention in the West: lacy white "snow ear" fungus and wolfberries (also called goji or gouqi berries), both of which were recently introduced in a recipe for Sweet Stuffed Asian Pears, among other places here. 

Plumped up snow ear
Wolfberries are lovely in and of themselves, and I toss them with considerable abandon into anything -- sweet or savory -- that could benefit from their deep red color and tartly raisin-like taste. They, like the kiwis, are very high in vitamins, making them both healthy and delicious. The other main component, the snow ear fungus, is there mainly for texture. It lightens the fruits and carries the flavors of the gentle sauce in between each morsel. 

This is yet another example of the Chinese concept of balance. Red against green, raw with cooked, tart with sweet, spicy against fruity... and yet they all form a harmonious whole.

Good for the end of a family meal or even for company, this is easy and inexpensive and just right for this time of the year when we're still waiting for the first fruits of summer to show up.

Kiwi, wolfberry and snow ear compote 
Tangzhu qiyiguo gouqi xue'er   糖煮奇異果枸杞雪耳 
All over China
Serves 4 to 6 as a dessert, 2 to 3 as a snack

1 large dried "snow ear" fungus
Boiling water, as needed
2 cups filtered water
1 walnut-sized piece of rock sugar, or honey or other sweetener to taste
½ teaspoon sea salt
3 thin slices fresh ginger
Chinese wolfberries
½ cup Chinese wolfberries (see Tips)
5 ripe kiwi fruits

1. Place the snow ear fungus in a heatproof work bowl and cover it with boiling water. When it has plumped up, use scissors or a paring knife to trim off any hard or brownish areas. Separate it into "petals," rinse to remove any debris, and dry in colander. 

2. Pour the 2 cups water into a saucepan; add the sugar, salt, and ginger, and bring to a boil. Rinse the wolfberries and add them to the pan along with the snow ear fungus. Simmer these until the liquid has been reduced to about a half cup, at which time the fungus should be soft and supple, and the wolfberries plump and tender. Remove the pan from the stove and allow the compote to come to room temperature.

3. Peel the kiwi fruits and cut each one into large dice, about 16 pieces. Add the kiwi to the cooled compote, cover, and refrigerate until completely chilled. Serve in small bowls.
Add salt and sugar


The best and freshest wolfberries and snow ear fungus will be found in Chinese herbal or specialty dry goods shops. Look for plump specimens that have no sign of deterioration or bugs. Ask the shopkeeper for help, as the owner will usually be more than happy to help customers find the right things. If not, find another shop.

Kiwis usually are sold barely ripe and need a couple of days to fully ripen. I like mine when the skins start to barely shrivel, at which point you'll feel a gentle "give" in the fruit that tells you it has ripened enough to begin softening. 

You can speed this up by putting the kiwis in a paper bag with an apple, as the apple's ethylene gas will jump start the ripening action. And, if you don't want to use the ripened kiwis right away, place them in an air-tight container and refrigerate, as any other ripening produce in the fridge might stimulate further ripening and then, alas, rot.


  1. arent' kiwis also called 獼猴桃 mihou tao in Chinese?

    1. You're right, that is one of its traditional names, as well as some others as noted on Wikipedia (, but like I said, in Taiwan the only name I've ever heard it called was qiyiguo. (I don't think anyone there would know what a mihou tao was, any more than your average American would know what a Chinese gooseberry was! Amazing how rapidly languages change...)