Often mistaken for a small orange because of its color, the kumquat has nevertheless become known as a quintessential hassle-free snack thanks to its size and edible peel! It’s no wonder this petite fruit is now a fan-favorite. Not only is it fun to eat, but it’s adaptable to a wide variety of recipes (from cocktail garnishes to marmalades, and even soup).
Read on to learn more about what makes this little citrus fruit so special!
The History of the Kumquat
According to experts, the taxonomy of citrus is actually quite complicated, and the kumquats’ classification as such has even been contested. Rest assured, however, that though there exist several different types of kumquats that vary slightly from each other, it is now confirmed that kumquats are, indeed, of the Citrus genus.
The word “kumquat” comes from the Cantonese kamkwat meaning golden mandarin orange. Experts aren’t sure how long ago ancient civilizations began cultivating the small citrus fruit, but references appear in Chinese literature as early as 1178 AD, so it is believed that kumquats originated in China.
In the mid 1600s, a European writer wrote that a Portuguese missionary who had worked in China for over two decades had described the fruit to him. Historians also found kumquats included in a list of plants cultivated in Japan less than one hundred years later.
By the time these fruits were introduced in Europe around the mid nineteenth century by Robert Fortune, a collector for the London Horticultural Society, they had become a staple fruit in Southeast Asian countries. Around the same time, they also started being cultivated in North America.
Though individuals mostly keep kumquat trees as ornamental plants in their green spaces, in America they are now actively cultivated in California, Florida, and Texas.
Characterization of the Kumquat
As mentioned above, kumquats look like oranges because of their color and shape (though some are a little more oblong), but they’re usually about the size of an olive: five-eighths to one-and-a-half inches wide.
The peel is tight around the interior flesh, which is also divided into less sections than those of an orange (three to six), and is covered in large oil glands that release essential oils. Not all fruits have seeds, but those that do have small pointed ones that have a green interior.
Kumquat trees are small—so small, in fact, that they sometimes look like shrubs. They usually grow eight to fifteen feet tall and have dense branches (watch out—they might have thorns!), dark green leaves, and sweetly scented white flowers. Some trees can produce up to thousands of fruit every year!
How To Cultivate Kumquats
Kumquat trees are hardy enough to survive in temperatures as low as eighteen degrees Fahrenheit, but if you don’t want the tree just for ornamental purposes, you’ll want to grow it in a warm climate so that it can produce larger and sweeter fruits. It’s no surprise then, that most cultivations can be found in the hotter states!
So as long as you’ve got a sunny spot in mind (they really do need full sun), growing a tree is easy and requires low commitment. They tolerate a wide range of soil pH as well as soil types, as long as the drainage is good. So keep the soil moist, but not too soggy.
Keep in mind that the fruit is in season November through June, but as always, the period might change depending on your specific location. For those of you that have an ocean view, we have good news! Kumquats can tolerate seaside conditions, as well.
If you plant the tree in a pot, make sure the pot is very large, because it won’t be happy if its roots are restricted. You should also drill big drainage holes at the bottom of the pot to make sure the water can drain easily, and then cover them with a window screen to keep the soil within secure.
If you raise the pot off the ground, this will help with air circulation, but then you will also need to protect it during freezing weather, because of how exposed it is. You can do this just by covering the tree with a blanket!
Kumquats in Your Kitchen
What Does a Kumquat Taste Like?
With its constant comparison to oranges, you might be wondering if there’s any similarity between kumquats and their bigger cousin in terms of flavor, too.
Despite their size, these little guys are extremely flavorful. When eaten whole, the mixture of peel and flesh combines into a truly bitter-sweet and tart flavor. The flesh is significantly sour, while it is the peel that contributes the sweetness. Overall, it tastes uniquely citrusy, and much stronger than an orange.
Buying the Fruit
Looking to buy kumquats in a grocery store? You don’t want to wait too long—if you hit the stores too late in the season, they may be out of stock!
If you get there in time, make sure to pick ripe fruits, which are firm, brightly colored, and without blemishes. Don’t be afraid to pick them up and give them a gentle squeeze. Avoid the fruit if it looks greenish or shriveled!
Though you might find these fruits at a regular grocery store, your best bet is at specialty or Asian grocery store. If you live in any of the warmer states mentioned above, you might even be lucky enough to find them at your local farmers market when they’re in season!
And if you still can’t find them, you could try your luck online.
Once you’ve secured your kumquats, you can extend their lifetime by storing them in the fridge for up to two weeks. If instead you choose to leave them out, make sure to eat them within a couple of days.
Though kumquats are best eaten whole, peel included, there are several different options for its fresh consumption.
If the flavor is just a little too sour for you, you can cut an end off and squeeze the juice out before eating the remaining flesh. This will lower the sour-to-sweet ratio between the flesh and the peel.
Another option is to carefully roll the round fruit between your fingers or palms, which helps release essential oils from the pores in its peel, and furthers the mixture of sweet and sour before popping it into your mouth.
You should also take the time to chew them a little longer than you might normally chew other fruit—the longer you work at it, the sweeter the flavor actually becomes!
In regards to the seeds, most people just eat them. But if they really bother you, you could cut the fruit and pick them out with a knife.
Kumquat’s bitter-sweet and tart flavor makes them a popular fruit for marmalades. The fact that the seeds contain pectin, which thickens marmalades, also helps the process!
Candied kumquats are a cherished holiday gift as well, along with a great and unique cocktail garnish.
These fruits can also accompany savory dishes extraordinarily. Because of their acidity, they’re highly appreciated in dishes with rich meats like pork, beef, and lamb. You can also find them in soups, where as it softens, the strong flavor becomes more delicate.
Perhaps unexpectedly, pickled fruits are also still able to retain some of their sweetness.
Kumquat Health Benefits
Like other citrus fruits, kumquats have a variety of health benefits. They’re very rich in vitamin C, vitamin A, calcium, plant compounds, and especially fiber. Just think that one hundred grams of the fruit, which is equivalent to about five whole fruits, have 6.5 grams of fiber! Proportionally, that’s more than most other fruit. Some of its plant compounds are also antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, which is believed to help prevent heart disease and cancer.
Science has also proven that eating kumquats supports your immune system, though some folk medicine in China was already using the fruit to heal colds and coughs.
Some studies also suggest that compounds in kumquats might activate natural killer cells, which sound terrible, but actually help defend our bodies from infections and work to destroy tumors.
And last but not least, snacking on these tiny fruits might help against obesity and resulting diseases like heart disease and type two diabetes. They’re just full of benefits!
Where to Buy a Kumquat Tree
Kumquat trees are surprisingly easy to find. You can find them at nurseries and garden centers, but even big box stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s advertise them. Of course, you can always buy them online if you live in an area where they’re not sold locally.
Try Kumquats For Yourself!
You may have started out wondering what these diminutive orange-looking fruits are, but now you know what a perfect snack kumquats turn out to be. Thanks to their edible peel and juicy interior, this ancient citrus has been shocking humans around the world with its bursting flavor and health benefits for centuries.
Remember that while the tree itself is hardy, if you want it for more than its ornamental aspect, you’ll have to find it a warm spot within its gardening space in order to produce fruit.