Looking at Chinese restaurant menus in Hong Kong, chenpi (陳皮, chun pei in Cantonese) is often translated as tangerine peel. I’m not sure why, but I’d always mistakenly thought that the word tangerine was a remnant of colonial English, like shroff or praya, and that chenpi was the dried, aged peel of mandarins, but turns out tangerines are very real – they’re hybrids of different kinds of mandarins, and potentially other citruses like pomelo. (In the Qin and Han dynasties, they called all citrus by one name 橘, so hey, don’t judge me for my lack of botanical exactitude). Tangerines got their English name from Tangier, Morocco, but the kind used for chenpi are a variety named Citrus reticulata Blanco, and more specifically, cultivars such as Citrus reticulata cv. Chachiensis and Citrus reticulata cv. Suavissima. The former cultivar, known as cha zhi gan (茶枝柑, not sure if the Chinese name informed the botanical or vice versa but they’re definitely phonetically related), is grown in Xinhui (新會) district, part of Jiangmen, in Guangdong, and is seen as the best kind of chenpi.
If you walk into a traditional dried foods shop in Hong Kong, the kind where the walls are lined with big glass jars full of waxy-looking dried fish bladders, spiky charcoal sticks of sea cucumber, and perfect caramel coins of conpoy, it’s likely you’ll also find chenpi, also stashed in a large glass jar, thick twisted petals that look like sanding paper cut-outs suspended in motion – dark brown on one side, and rough and pallid on the other. On the jar will be a price tag – a tael (37.5 grams) of this dried citrus peel can easily command hundreds of Hong Kong dollars.
Last night, I had chenpi in a sweet red (adzuki) bean soup at Summer Palace at the Island Shangri-la – a single bowl of this dessert cost HK$200 (US$26), and while yes, red bean soup does take a lot of time to make, and yes, this was a fancy restaurant, the cost can mostly be attributed to the chenpi, which the menu said had been aged for fifty years.
To make chenpi, tangerines are harvested at different stages of maturity to yield different coloured chenpi with different medicinal value – green peels are seen to be cooling, yellow are neutral, and “red” (a ripe orange) are seen to be nourishing (and the best). No matter the colour, they’re peeled carefully (mostly by hand, but there are now machines for that too) and dried – traditional methods call for sun-drying for around 5-6 days, while modern, commercial methods use dehydrators. They then begin the ageing process in a warm, dry place for the first three years. In Xinhui, where this process is now officially recognised as cultural heritage, the peels must be aged for a minimum of three years in order to be marketed as chenpi (which literally translates to “aged peel”); anything aged for a shorter period of time can only be called guopi (果皮, “fruit peel”). During this three-year process, traditional makers will sun-dry the peel further by airing it a few more times per year, to release any residual moisture. For further ageing, the peel is stored in tightly sealed bags or boxes in a cool, dry environment so that it doesn’t lose its aromas. As the peels age, they generally (but not always) darken – younger peels will still have some whiteness in the pith, while in older ones, the pith and skin become increasingly similar in colour – an ashy, chocolate hue.
Good chenpi should smell like citrus, albeit without the sharp, fresh acidity. Peels that don’t smell of much have lost the peel’s natural oils, and their value.
Chenpi were first ingested for their medicinal value in the Eastern Han dynasty – a famous doctor by the name of Zhang Zhongjing (張仲景) wrote in around 200AD a number of herbal prescriptions incorporating dried tangerine peels in his book Essential Prescriptions of the Golden Coffer (Jingui Yaolüe 金櫃要略).
According to the Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao Gangmu 本草綱目, the 16th Century Chinese herbal encyclopaedia used till this day), chenpi is prescribed for upset stomachs and nausea, coughing, constipation, and breast abscesses. It’s for regulating the flow of qi, invigorating the spleen function, eliminating dampness, and getting rid of phlegm (source).
As early as the Northern and Southern dynasties (420-859 AD) Chinese pharmacologists like Tao Hongjing (陶弘景) seemed to have learned that the longer peels were dried, the better their medicinal effect. This is still believed till this day. I dug around for most of the day for scientific literature to support this, but couldn’t really find anything – I’m assuming that it’s the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties in the tangerine peel’s phenolic compounds that are being preserved through the drying process, and what gives it its medicinal qualities, because things like Vitamin C and beta-carotene, I learned, are significantly degraded in the drying process (as this study shows [PDF]) but it turns out each phenolic compound reacts really differently to heat, humidity, storage period etc. so who knows if ageing really makes it more potent. (Side note for the extra nerdy (gold stars for you): here’s the abstract of an interesting study about the major flavonoids in tangerine peel, and how they might have anti-neuroinflammatory properties).
Nonetheless, because of this belief, and perhaps also because Xinhui isn’t growing as many tangerines as it used to, chenpi prices have skyrocketed, especially anything older than about 10 or 15 years. You don’t have to know any Chinese to get the gist of the opening graphic in this 2017 article: 10-year chenpi was selling for HK$40 a tael, whereas 60-year is valued at HK$580 per tael, and the article says they’re not even willing to sell the 60-year stuff, it’s that precious.
Some Cantonese families are known to keep chenpi from the year of a baby’s birth. Traditionally, for girls, chenpi can become part of their dowry, and is intended to be consumed as nourishment after they give birth. Men can have it too, of course, and because of the rise in value through time, it’s seen as a financial asset of sorts. (In case you didn’t understand the headline of this newsletter, Chanel handbags, especially the flap bags, are seen as a good investment as the prices of new bags rise continuously, so a well-maintained vintage bag can command just as much, if not more, than a new bag, which is more or less what’s happening to chenpi.)
Now let’s get back to the serious stuff. What does it taste like, and how do you cook with it? Generally speaking, it’s used like a warm spice – Cantonese food doesn’t usually require many spices beyond pepper; the earthy, musty, orangey notes and subtle bitterness are flavours that chenpi is used for, and it’s used sparingly. The Compendium of Materia Medica mentions that you can use it with fish, to counter any fishy flavours, and that’s certainly seen today in some Cantonese steamed fish fishes, such as pomfret. It’s also commonly seen in steamed meat patty, usually beef, probably to stand up against the red meat flavours that Cantonese people often find overly strong or offputting (there’s no real translation for 酥; gaminess isn’t quite it. I’d describe it as an off-flavour sometimes found in the fat of animals), and of course, the aforementioned red bean soup.
To use it in cooking, you first need to clean and soak it in a bit of cold water (hot water would release its flavours prematurely), and when soft, using the back of a knife or a metal spoon, you scrape off the excessive pith, so it’s not too bitter. It’s then usually julienned or diced very finely before being combined with whatever you’re cooking. In soups, which cook for a while, you can use whole pieces.
For medicinal purposes, whole or roughly broken pieces are used. Some people use it on its own to brew a tisane – in Mainland China where it’s common to greet friends and do business over a tea ceremony, this has become trendy of late, probably because of how expensive good chenpi has become. You prep as you would if cooking: pour boiling water over the peels, cover and let it steep. (Tangentially related: another thing that’s recently become trendy: pu’erh in tangerine peels – given that both require ageing (albeit in rather different conditions, hmm…) I guess it just makes a doubly expensive product?).
The flavour of chenpi isn’t for everyone. A lot of kids don’t like it, and it’s seen as a bit of a “grandma” flavour profile. I’d never liked it much either, until I had a version of red bean soup at Foshan private kitchen House 102, which had a subtle twang of tangerine peel and lashings of lard to finish – it was a minor revelation, how well the flavours complemented each other instead of the weirdly tainted feeling I usaully got from the addition of tangerine peels. Interestingly, despite its importance and value in Cantonese cooking, it doesn’t get at much air-time in both Chinese- and English-language books on Chinese cookery.
Xinhui, home of China’s most famous chenpi, now has a museum and tourist destination (link in Chinese: Xinhui Chenpi Village) dedicated to the sale and education of chenpi. There’s even a chenpi exchange there (as in, like a stock exchange!) with cellaring facilities, and promises better traceability. If only travel wasn’t a problem right now, I’d be heading to Xinhui stat to find out more. Well, I’d really go anywhere for anything at this point, but heading to the home of chenpi does sound pretty enticing, especially if it meant I could stock up on some of these prized peels and make some $$$.
Know a fruit peel connoisseur who might enjoy this?
What I ate
Bak chor mee at Return of Lemak at Basehall. I was gutted when I missed the last time this special came up, so I had to make sure I got my fill this time! Bak chor mee is one of my absolute favourite noodle dishes of all time. Minced pork with super tender and flavourful shiitake mushrooms, sliced fish cake, pork balls, pork liver and just a little soup to make it slurpable. A dot of sambal, and a splash of Zhenjiang vinegar. And mee pok, the fettucine-like flat noodles. It’s always mee pok for me, don’t even try anything else.
Kaviari caviar. I don’t know that I want it specifically as afternoon tea (as it’s served at La Rambla, which is how I got to taste it at a media tasting) but hand me a tin of this and watch me down it in all its salty, eggy glory. But for real, Kaviari makes some of the freshest tasting caviar I’ve had in HK – a lot of it is just overly salty and otherwise tasteless, this is actually complex.
Another tasting was at Tosca di Angelo, where I chose an exclusively seafood lunch – not really on purpose, but they had a lot of seafood on the menu – and had a little jog down memory lane with all the Sicilian ingredients and Piedmontese cheese.
The star meal of the week was definitely at Tien Heung Lau, a 70-ish year-old Hangzhou-style restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui. The meal was delightful, especially the croaker – read about it and find pictures here, but I had a nagging feeling that I’d eaten some of these dishes in Hong Kong before, even though I knew for sure it was my first time there. Then I learned that an ex-chef of THL consulted for Hangzhou Restaurant in Wanchai, which I had been to many moons ago. It was so similar, down to the pink tablecloths (why pink?), but THL was on another level. There was much more subtlety of flavour, probably helped by supply chains that they’d established over the years. A lot of what was great about it was the superb ingredients – it was a level of freshness and good farming that can’t be left to chance.
I didn’t write a newsletter last week, but I don’t think anyone realised (or did you?) so I’ll add last week’s interesting eats in quickly too: Bâtard, which I’ve talked about before, was as good as last time, and again, being able to snap up a retail priced wine with dinner feels so good, so fair! I also went to Soil to Soul, the newish vegan Korean “temple food” restaurant in K11, which was a bit of a disappointment; the dishes weren’t particularly well put together and were so tiny that I can just hear those annoying self-proclaimed carnivores chuckling about how they aren’t full and mocking every dish for being just mushrooms and tofu – because that’s pretty much what it was. Vegan food Does. Not. Have. To. Be. Like. This.
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Hello, I'm working on a story about chenpi and am trying to find people who collect aged chenpi just to talk about how they got into it, what they look for when choosing it, etc. Any help would be greatly appreciated.