In celebration of the Lunar New Year and the Year of the Dog, it seems only fitting to track down the elusive kumquat. Symbolizing good luck and prosperity, they are often part of Lunar New Year celebrations. With a bittersweet skin and slightly acidic pulp, no-need-to-peel kumquats are neatly packaged in one bite. Like most things citrus, I inherited my love for kumquats from my mother. They are also nostalgic for me; the slightly exotic fruit is inextricably linked to two restaurants from my youth; the Joy Inn and the Bamboo Inn.
Other than the occasional can of La Choy or Chun King chicken chow mein, (with its separate vacuum-sealed can of crispy noodles,) our adventures in Chinese cuisine were limited to dining out. Dinner at a Chinese restaurant in the 1960s promised more than a meal; it was dinner and a show. Boasting the pomp of sizzling pu-pu platters, we sat at a table against a backdrop of deep reds and flashy golds. Frowning waiters circled the dining room brandishing stainless steel pedestal dishes in one hand, tall glasses garnished with maraschino cherries in the other. The Chinese/American cuisine of my youth catered to non-daring tastes. Our menus offered nothing too exotic, nothing too spicy, and certainly nothing of the sushi variety. Cantonese dishes were liberal with the soy, the sweet, and the monosodium glutamate. Crispy noodles floating in wonton soup and overfilled egg rolls provided more than a daily serving of sodium. Cloyingly sweet and sour dishes were heavy on the pineapple and red dye number 2. At some point between Column A’s spare ribs and Column B’s subgum chow mein, a waiter swooped in bearing a plate of hot towel-ettes, an antidote to sticky fingers. It was generally around this time that my father would ask for a few more crispy noodles and another pot of steaming tea. I was already thinking about dessert.
Ice cream was the star dessert player, served in frosty, stainless steel dishes. A single scoop of chocolate, vanilla, or pistachio, crowned with a paper parasol felt celebratory. Occasionally there were almond cookies, as large as a saucer, studded with one perfect almond on top. We divvied up the fortune cookies, some of us believing the message inside to be gospel. (If the fortune was not to my liking, I insisted it had been destined for one of my brothers.) The most intriguing of the dessert offerings was the one my mother favored; candied kumquats. Swimming in neon orange syrup, I loved that they were simultaneously sweet and bitter and sour.
Following my mother’s lead, I learned to appreciate kumquats straight-up in their natural state. Particularly in winter, their jolting taste is addictive, offering what feels like a bite of sunshine. In baking, kumquats pair happily with other citrus, sassing up sweet Meyer lemons and clementines. Their bold flavor is a welcome addition to rustic desserts, especially those featuring nuts and flours with a little bit of texture, such as cornmeal or almond meal. Paper parasols and fortune cookies notwithstanding, kumquats seem happiest amidst the holy flavor trinity of chocolate, vanilla, and pistachio. As for the maraschino cherry? My fortune cookie advises me to avoid anything with red dye number 2. In honor of the Lunar New Year, I’m listening.