What the Heck Do I Do With a Buddha’s Hand?

Yes, you can eat this thing

Buddha's hand
Buddha's hand sliced where all the fingers are splitting off the main fruit. Courtesy of Flickr user Craig Damlo

It's the kind of item you stop to get a good look at in the grocery store. It runs at about $24 per pound and it looks like the Edward Scissorhands of the citrus family. A Buddha's Hand Citron (var. sarcodactylis) looks like a lumpy lemon with fingers and smells like heaven.

Its ancestor, the citron, may have been brought to China from India by Buddhist monks and cultivated in ancient China near the Yangtze Valley. In China and Japan, the hybrid, also known as the Fingered Citron, is served around the new year because it is believed to symbolize happiness, wealth and longevity. Historically, the powerful lavender scent also made the plant attractive for ornamental purposes.

Today, Chinese farmers grow at least six distinct types of Buddha's Hand on 5,000 acres just south of Shanghai. It wasn't until the mid-to-late '80s that the fruit was commercially grown in California, and as of 2008, there were at least 25 acres dedicated to cultivating the fruit. The tree that grows the Buddha’s Hand is equally crazy; the fingered canopy can range between six and 12 feet in height.

Because the fruit has little to no flesh (pulp) and no seeds, like most commercial fruit trees, it must be grafted to propagate. But just because it’s a lot of rind doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it! Here are a few examples of what to do with your newly-purchased, creepy lemon hand.

Buddha's hand
A Buddha's hand. Kaldari via Wikimedia Commons

1) Put it in your cocktail

The aromatic rind of the Buddha’s Hand infuses perfectly in alcohols like vodka or gin. Choose your base spirit (something strong, high in proof, works best) and add sliced citron in an air-tight jar. Shake up the contents a few times and let it sit for a week or two, depending on how strong you’d like flavor to be. When it’s ready, use a strainer to separate the alcohol from the citron. Muddle some fresh basil, add your new gin infusion and a splash of club soda. Or try a new take on the Meyor Lemon Drop.

2) Try it candied or as a marmalade

Unlike most citrus, the rind of the Buddha’s hand isn’t bitter but sweet and candies well—it’s been a popular way to serve the fruit for centuries. Women would cut the Buddha’s hand citron into the form of flowers or birds and would then simmer them in honey for use as centerpieces on a banquet table, according to Frederick J. Simoons’s Food in China: A Cultural and Historical Inquiry. By 301 A.D., the citron plant made its way to Rome, according to researchers at the University of California Riverside Citrus Variety Collection. Records show that “their sales prices were officially fixed by Diocletian at values ranging from twelve to sixteen times the price of melons.”

Via The Kitchn, famed pastry chef David Lebovitz has a nice recipe for candied citron. Instructables, which amusingly refers to the fruit as a Monsanto-produced cross between calamari and a lemon, has another take on the treat.

A related recipe takes some of the same ingredients, but suggests a marmalade instead—it’s simple to make and has hints of cardamom and balsamic vinegar.

3) Make life zesty

Buddha’s Hand citron can really be used as substitute for most other recipes involving citrus zest. A great way to dress a winter salad is with a citron vinaigrette—food blogger Todd Porter puts his zesty dressing atop an arugula and prosciutto salad. It’s as easy as mixing together olive oil, salt, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, minced thyme, garlic and a little Buddha zest. For best results, allow the dressing to marinate overnight.

4) Make some Buddha Waffles

This recipe adds some citron zest to a basic buttermilk waffle for a pretty delicious-looking breakfast. If your alarm clock doesn’t wake you up, the cintron’s perfume will. Sounds like a pretty zen way to start the morning.

5) Do your laundry

We’re not joking about the aroma of the Buddha’s Hand—it smells good. So good, that it’s presence in a home is better than potpourri. "One reads of people carrying Buddha's-hand citron in their hands or placing them on tables for their strong, delicious odor; of their being used to perfume clothes when pressed; and of washing fine linen in citron juice,” Simoons writes. If the people in ancient china washed their clothes with it, why can’t we? And while you’re at it, dab a little bit of the citrus oil under your arms, would you?

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