Dear Culinary Backstreets,
I keep hearing buzz about “yangmei” season in Shanghai. What’s all the fuss about this fruit?
What’s in a name? Shakespeare could just as easily have written, “A yángméi (杨梅) by any other name would taste as sweet.” This little red Asian fruit has a plethora of monikers: Myrica rubra, Chinese bayberry, yamamomo, Japanese bayberry, red bayberry and waxberry. But a decade ago, the sweet and sour fruit was rebranded as the yumberry in the United States (where it is sold in juice and powder form, but not fresh, due to an import ban on the live fruit) to stand out from other exotic “superfoods.”
Shanghai is currently at the height of yangmei season, during which the fruits show up in every wet market and are baked, preserved, fermented and popped whole into mouths across the city. The dimpled berry was first domesticated in China thousands of years ago and has been prized for millennia for both its medicinal qualities and flavor. It contains exceptionally high levels of antioxidants – especially Vitamin C – and was historically used to aid in digestion in China (some even say that it neutralizes E. coli bacteria). More recently, studies have found that eating the berry lowers LDL cholesterol and blood pressure levels. Medicine has never tasted so good.
Some describe the flavor of the berry as falling somewhere between a strawberry, a cranberry and a pomegranate, with the texture of an orange and a pit like a cherry. It’s sweet but not saccharine, tart without puckering your lips. Yangmei is naturally resistant to pests, so farmers use fewer pesticides on the trees than with other fruits, but the downside is that they are extremely perishable that they are only available for a short period in early summer – which makes the fresh fruit all the more cherished.
While buying them whole and taking them home is one of our favorite ways to eat the ruby fruit, there are plenty of enterprising chefs in Shanghai who are finding inventive ways to put yangmei on dining tables. Amelia’s Marketplace sells a homemade yangmei jam that you can spread on toast till the temperatures drop. For their cookie of the month this June, Strictly Cookies is baking up coconut and yumberry cookies, available at Nom Nom Dessert Bar and through their website. Madison, a contemporary American restaurant in the French Concession that we’ve praised for their use of local ingredients, has been whipping up yangmei ice cream with a splash of lemon. They’re also adding it to savory dishes, such as the seared foie gras. Yangmei sauce spiced up with coriander, mustard, black peppercorn, thyme and bay leaves adds depth to the duck liver, and fresh macerated berries bring texture. Madison’s duo of squab with Tibetan quinoa is also graced with yangmei: it’s served with both a fruity jus as well as fresh slices of the berry.
It’s possible to find yangmei juice year-round, as it’s pasteurized and bottled when the fruit is in season and later sold at restaurants and grocers. In fact, yangmei juice is one of Pizza Hut’s most recommended orders, according to users of Dianping (China’s version of Yelp). But we’re especially taken with yangmei-infused alcoholic drinks. At Fengshou Ri (“Bountiful Harvest Day Restaurant”), which serves seafood and Huaiyang cuisine from Ningbo, the popular yángméijiǔxiā (杨梅酒虾) features raw shrimp marinated ceviche-style in baijiu, China’s hard liquor, infused with yangmei. – Jamie Barys