Goji berries are tiny, orange-red berries native to Southeast Asia. These colorful fruits have been an essential part of the Asian food and medicine scene for ages due to their flavor and health benefits.
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What is a Goji Berry?
A goji berry is a fruit produced by either of the two species of the boxthorn shrub, Lycium barbarum and Lycium chinense. This shrub is part of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, where Chinese lantern fruits, eggplants, potatoes, and chili peppers also belong.
The goji berry is also known as the wolfberry or Lycium fruit. It is a small, elongated fruit with smooth orange-red skin, averaging about 0.39-0.79 inches (1-2 cm) in diameter. The fruit has a slightly sweet and tangy flavor.
Goji berries are believed to have originated from areas between Southeast Europe and Southeast Asia. They’re mainly cultivated in China, although UK, US, and Canadian farmers have recently taken up goji berry cultivation.
The History of Goji Berries
Goji berries have grown naturally in Asia, primarily in China, for over 2,000 years. But they have also been cultivated in Asian countries like Japan and Taiwan, as they’re believed to have anti-aging properties.
According to a popular legend, a doctor visited an Asian village where people appeared younger and more radiant than their ages. After observing and studying them, the doctor discovered that the villagers drank water from a well surrounded by goji berry bushes. He concluded that the people benefitted from nutrient-rich water since some ripened goji berries fell into the well.
Early records of the goji berry reveal its use as a mild Yin tonic, powder, and tincture in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The earliest documentation of the health benefits of goji berries is an old Chinese book written in 250 BCE by a Chinese emperor, Shen Nong.
Due to the goji berry’s health and nutritional value, farmers in China have been cultivating the fruit for consumption and sale (locally and abroad) for years. However, since the 21st century, goji berry cultivation has spread outside Asia due to the increased popularity of the berry as a health food.
What Does a Goji Berry Taste Like?
Fresh, raw goji berries have a sweet and bitter taste. However, the bitterness reduces once dried, giving the berries a distinct sweet and slightly tangy flavor. And this makes them a great addition to baked snacks, breakfast cereals, and yogurt.
When cooked, Goji berries add a tart flavor to savory soups, salads, salsas, rice dishes, and meats.
How to Tell When a Goji Berry is Ripe
Here are some characteristics to help you determine if a goji berry is ripe:
|The color of goji berries turns from light green to orange and then bright red, indicating that they are ripe. Some varieties are dark red when ripe. Avoid purple or black goji berries, which could be overripe or spoilt.
|You can squeeze the goji berry gently to check its firmness. The fruit is ripe if it is soft to the touch and the outer skin is dry and firm.
|Ripe goji berries are soft and chewy. But unripe goji berries have a crunchy texture.
|When ripe, goji berries have a lingering tart fruit scent. Their smell will remind you of freshly picked blueberries and raspberries. However, you might not detect any smell if the goji berry is unripe, while spoilt fruit will have a sour odor.
What’s the Difference Between Goji Berries and Cranberries?
Goji berries and cranberries appear similar to most people. After all, both are tiny, oblong-shaped fruits that turn red when ripe. Also, goji berries and cranberries are known for their health benefits and are used as food supplements and additives.
However, these fruits belong to different families and have some distinct differences.
|Goji berries belong to the Solanaceae family, while cranberries are in the Ericaceae family.
|Goji berries are more elongated and bright red, while cranberries are more round and appear dark (crimson) red when ripe.
|Fresh goji berries taste sweet and tangy, while fresh cranberries are more bitter (or acidic).
|Goji berries have a higher Vitamin C, sugar, fiber, iron, calcium, and sodium content than cranberries. But cranberries contain more vitamins, minerals, and saturated fats than goji berries.
Do Goji Berries Have Caffeine?
Goji berries do not naturally contain caffeine. However, goji berry herbal teas and juices in the market have some caffeine.
The caffeine in goji berry herbal teas and juices is mainly from the tea leaves, not the goji berries. Most caffeinated goji berry beverages have about 45 mg of caffeine per every 8 oz. That’s the same amount of caffeine in an 8-oz cup of brewed tea.
The same amount of brewed coffee has 95mg of caffeine, over twice the amount that goji contains. Also, the caffeine content depends on the type of tea or coffee and how long you’ve brewed it.
How to Cook with Goji Berries
Fresh or dried goji berries can be a flavorful addition to your meals.
Here’s how to prep fresh goji berries before cooking:
- Run cold water on the goji berries to remove dirt and debris after harvesting.
- Remove any remaining stalk.
- Add the clean goji berries to your soup, salsa, or other dishes.
For dried goji berries:
- Soak the dry goji berries in cold water for 20 minutes (or overnight – for best results) to make them plump and softened. In this form, you can add them to your smoothie, oatmeal, yogurt, trail mix, or savory dishes like crispy chicken and pea sprouts.
- Add and soak dried goji berries in boiling water to make if you want to prepare goji berry herbal tea or juice.
Goji berries are versatile fruits, adding color and flavor to traditional and modern dishes. They’ve been a significant part of Chinese cuisine, especially in homemade chicken dishes, porridge, and soups.
Here are delicious and savory dishes featuring goji berries:
Chinese Chicken Foot Soup with Peanuts: This is a collagen-rich, flavorful, and nutritious Chinese delicacy. It’s also an easy-to-make soup believed to improve skin appearance and reduce joint pain.
Roasted Butternut and Goji Berry Salad: This dish is full of flavor and color! And it’s the perfect salad for those lazy summer afternoons. It blends the sweet, bold, and sharp tastes of goji berries, herbs, veggies, and balsamic vinaigrette.
Abalone Porridge (Jook): Jook is another easy-to-make Chinese dish you can prepare in 5 minutes. You can pair it with side dishes, including braised pork ribs and Chinese soy sauce pork.
Goji Berry and Pistachio Granola Bars: If you’re looking for a quick and nutritious breakfast, these granola bars are a great way to start your morning. The energy-packed snack is easy to prepare, and you can customize it by adding your favorite ingredients.
How to Store Goji Berries
Goji berries are highly perishable. So it’s nearly impossible to store them fresh unless you freeze them (without washing them first). But they’ll lose flavor and freshness after a couple of days.
The best way to store goji berries is by drying them. Dried goji berries last up to 12 months and maintain flavor if stored in airtight containers.
You can dry goji berries using these two techniques:
- Sun-drying: It’s the traditional way of drying goji berries. However, this requires up to 4 days of consistent sunshine.
- Oven drying: First, you must crack the goji berry skin using a combination of high and low temperatures to enhance drying.
Keep the dried fruit in airtight containers and store them in a cool, dark place like your pantry for up to 3 months. You can also place them in a freezer bag and lay them flat in your freezer for up to 1 year.
Nutritional Benefits of Goji Berries
Goji berries are nutrient-packed fruits with potential health benefits. Studies have shown numerous bioactive compounds that boost health by strengthening the immune system.
Due to their rich nutrient composition, goji berries have been linked to several health benefits. Some of the nutrients in goji berries, including Vitamin C, selenium, and carotenoids, are antioxidants. They reduce oxidative stress by neutralizing harmful free radicals, helping prevent cancer and diabetes.
Antioxidants like zeaxanthin and beta-carotene in goji berries have been linked to improved eye health. The antioxidants prevent cell damage, protecting the eyes from age-related illnesses like macular degeneration.
However, some marketers of goji berries and their products have exaggerated the health benefits of goji berries, labeling them as ‘superfruits.’ For instance, there have been unverified claims of the berries’ anti-aging and anti-cancer benefits.
There’s a downside to the use of goji berries. Some people may experience side effects like allergic reactions after consuming the fruits. Goji berries also interact with medications such as warfarin (a blood thinner), blood pressure, and diabetes drugs. You must consult your doctor before eating goji berries if you’re pregnant.
Where to Purchase Goji Berries
You’ll find dried goji berries year-round in health food stores and specialty bulk food stores like Home Depot. You can also buy the dried fruit in Asian or European gourmet markets and online stores like Amazon.
You can only purchase fresh goji berries from a local farmer during harvesting. The goji berry peak (harvest) season is from June through August in China.