The Chinese lantern fruit is a delicate fruit known for its distinctive lantern-like shape and distinctive tart flavors. It’s highly sought after for its uses in traditional medicine, along with many unique culinary applications.
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What is a Chinese Lantern?
A Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi) is a plant native to China, Japan, and Korea. It belongs to the nightshade family, Solanaceae, and presents itself as a bright orange-red papery husk surrounding a small edible berry.
Chinese lanterns are also known by several other common names, such as bladder cherry, Japanese lantern, strawberry groundcherry, devil’s berry, or winter cherry. The plant grows up to two feet tall and produces small white flowers in the summer, followed by the distinctive lantern-shaped fruit that appears in the fall.
The fruit of the Chinese lantern plant is visually striking, with a bright orange-red paper lantern-looking seed pod surrounding a small berry. The husk is translucent and thin, and the berry inside is small, round, and yellow.
In terms of flavor, the Chinese lantern fruit is not particularly sweet but has a slightly tart, acidic taste similar to a tomato or a tomatillo. It can be eaten raw or cooked and is often used in jams, jellies, and sauces. The leaves and stems of the plant are also edible and are sometimes used in salads or cooked dishes.
The History of Chinese Lantern Fruit
The Chinese lantern plant is native to regions of Asia, including China, Japan, and Korea. Its introduction to Southern Europe through international trade has led to its widespread use as an ornamental plant, while its medicinal and culinary uses have made it an essential commodity in global trade networks.
In traditional Chinese medicine, Chinese lanterns have been employed to alleviate various ailments, including abscesses, fevers, and coughs.
The fruit also holds significant symbolism as it embodies the concept of life and death in a strikingly beautiful way. The image of a fruit protected within the delicate framework of its husk is a powerful visual metaphor.
During the Bon Festival in Japan, these lantern-shaped fruits are offered to guide the souls of the dead. People gather at a market called hōzuki-ichi near the old Sensō-ji Buddhist temple in Asakusa to buy these unique fruits.
What Does a Chinese Lantern Fruit Taste Like?
The Chinese Lantern fruit has a unique taste that is both sweet and tart. When eaten raw, it has a crunchy texture and flavor similar to a cross between a pineapple and a tomato, with a slightly sour finish.
When cooked, You can use Chinese Lantern Fruit in a variety of dishes, such as pies, jams, or sauces. Cooking the fruit brings out its natural sweetness, reduces its tartness, and allows it to take on a softer texture and a sweeter flavor.
How to Tell When Chinese Lanterns are Ripe
Chinese lanterns are not typically consumed in their unripe form, as they contain toxic solanine. Therefore, it is crucial to know when a Chinese lantern is ripe before consuming it. Here are some visual characteristics to look for:
|A ripe Chinese lantern will have turned a bright orange or red color. It is not yet ripe if the fruit is still green or pale.
|The outer layer of the Chinese lantern fruit will become thin and papery when it is ripe. The fruit still needs to ripen if the outer layer is still thick and difficult to peel.
|A ripe Chinese lantern fruit will be slightly soft to the touch but not mushy or overly squishy.
|A ripe fruit will typically fall off the plant on its own or with minimal force.
Are Chinese Lantern Plants Poisonous?
The unripe berries and leaves of Physalis alkekengi contain solanine, a toxic alkaloid that can cause symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. In severe cases, it can lead to respiratory failure, coma, and even death.
Therefore, you should keep this plant away from children and pets who might accidentally ingest the unripe fruit or leaves.
On the other hand, ripe Chinese lanterns are safe to eat and are often used in cooking and baking.
Can I Eat Raw Chinese Lanterns?
You can only eat the ripe berry of the Chinese lantern; the leaves and calyxes are toxic.
Remember to consume Chinese lanterns safely when the fruit becomes fully ripe. If you’re worried about eating the raw fruit, cook it before eating and use it in jams, jellies, pies, and other recipes.
Cooking with Chinese Lanterns
If you have access to Chinese lanterns, the first step is to remove their papery husks by gently squeezing the fruit until it pops off of the stem. The berry can then be easily removed from the lantern-like shell. Finally, rinse the fruit in cool water and pat it dry with a paper towel.
Chinese lanterns are often used as a decorative ingredient in sweet and savory dishes in Chinese cuisine. They are also commonly used in Japanese and Korean cuisines.
In Japan, the fruit is known as “hōzuki” and is often used to make jams, preserves, and candies. In some parts of China, the fruit is used to create a sweet and sour sauce usually served with meat dishes.
Here are some dishes that can incorporate Chinese lanterns:
Tomato Salad with Physalis: a fresh and colorful salad made with bell pepper, cherry tomatoes, some sweet honey, and of course: Physalis, the star of the show.
Grilled Prawn Skewers with Physalis: These delicious bites are skewered and grilled – and come in a flavor combination of sweet and savory.
Chinese Lantern Jam: a sweet and tangy spread made from simmering Physalis with sugar and lime.
Chinese Lantern Sauces: Many dishes can be beautifully complemented by a sweet tasty Physalis sauce, like this Grilled Octopus with Physalis and Jalapeño Sauce or this twist to your humble chicken enchilada.
How to Store Chinese Lantern Fruit
You can store ripe Chinese lantern fruit at room temperature by placing them in a small container or paper bag and keeping them on your kitchen counter. Ensure the fruit is stored out of direct sunlight, and they will be good for 2-3 days.
You can also store it in a cool, dry place with low humidity, like in the fridge, for up to 2-3 weeks.
Do not wash the Chinese Lantern Fruit before storing it, as moisture can cause the fruit to spoil more quickly. Be sure to make sure there is also enough space for air to circulate around the fruit.
Nutritional Benefits of Chinese Lantern Fruit
Chinese medicine has used winter cherries for their cleansing properties and possible health benefits.
Chinese lantern berries are a good source of vitamins A and C, iron, and calcium. These vitamins are critical for strengthening the immune system and protecting the body against infections and illnesses.
The fiber content in Chinese Lantern berries can help to support healthy digestion and bowel regularity. Some studies have suggested that Chinese lantern berries contain compounds that may have anti-cancer properties, although more research is needed in this area.
Chinese Lanterns as Ornamental Plants
Chinese lanterns are hardy perennial plants famous for their bright orange or red lantern-shaped calyxes encasing the small fruits. They are often used in flower arrangements as well as in decorative accents in gardens and homes, especially during early fall.
You can plant Chinese lanterns in your home garden as border plants or in containers, as they are excellent for adding color and texture to mixed perennial beds. If you’re considering buying one, know that they thrive in moist, well-drained soil and can quickly spread by underground rhizomes.
Chinese lanterns can also be used as cut flowers or dried for use in wreaths and other decorative crafts. However, it is essential to note that while Chinese lanterns are generally safe, they can be toxic to some animals if ingested. Therefore, it is vital to keep flower arrangements that contain them away from pets and livestock.
Where to Purchase Chinese Lanterns
Specialty stores with unique or exotic produce items may carry Chinese lantern berries. Look for stores that specialize in Asian groceries or international fruits and vegetables. Additionally, some health food stores may have Chinese lantern berries or products made with them, such as jams or teas.
Farmers’ markets can also be great places to find Chinese lantern berries during their growing season. Depending on your region and climate, local farmers might specialize in growing unusual or heirloom fruits and vegetables.
Online stores can also be a convenient option for purchasing Chinese lantern berries. Many online retailers that specialize in rare or exotic fruits may offer Chinese lantern berries when they are in season.