It’s the season for refreshing citrus, with abundant oranges and tangerines bringing a breeze of lightness to the bold flavors of winter.
But the tangerine doesn’t just provide the juicy pulp, its peeling is a very valuable ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine and Chinese cooking, sometimes with a skyrocketing price tag that’s almost out of reach – a kilo of tangerine peel aged (known as chenpi) that has been well-preserved for 30 years can easily cost 10,000 yuan (US$1,575), and the price is even higher for older skins.
Xinhui, in the south of Guangdong province, produces the best chenpi, where people use traditional processing techniques that have been passed down for centuries. It is a meticulous process of repeated picking, peeling, turning, sun-drying and aging.
In TCM, aged mandarin peel is a Qi-regulating herb that tones the lungs and spleen. It is acrid and bitter in nature, and the property becomes stronger as the skin ages.
Skin oil has a mild stimulating effect on the gastrointestinal tract, so it can also stimulate appetite and neutralize some of the discomfort. Sheppi can also stimulate the bronchi and facilitate expectoration.
The easy way to consume aged tangerine peel is to steep it in boiling water or lightly flavored teas like red bean and labor tears tea or roasted rice tea, which also tastes slightly sour.
To relieve throat discomfort and nourish the lungs, one can try a recipe of boiling pieces of fresh pear with aged tangerine peel and rock sugar (to taste), a delicious hot drink with a sweet and sour taste. And a recipe to aid digestion involves boiling aged tangerine peel and dried hawthorn fruit slices with rock sugar in water.
Sheppi is also found in the traditional sour plum drink, alongside dried black plum, hawthorn fruit, licorice, osmanthus flower and rock sugar.
The drink is usually double-cooked to fully extract the flavor and is especially crowd-pleasing to accompany spicy cuisine.
In Cantonese cuisine, one of the most popular sweet desserts is red bean soup with aged tangerine peel, and it is best prepared with Xinhui’s premium peel. Red soup is simmered until thick and dense in texture, and is best prepared with premium small red beans (called chixiaodouwhich are more difficult to cook but have better nutritional value).
Red beans are soaked in water in advance to soften for a few hours, and aged tangerine peel should also be steeped in boiled water for at least 30 minutes so that the white flesh can be scraped off.
Then it is thinly sliced. The next step is to make red bean soup, water should be added at the beginning, as filling water will dilute the soup. Ingredients like dried lotus seeds can also be added to the stew along with the beans.
The tangerine zest slices and rock candy are added to the soup after an hour of stewing, and it takes another hour to cook.
The soup is ready when the texture becomes thick enough and the beans separate.
In savory cooking, tangerine zest is usually incorporated into meat dishes to impart a light citrus flavor that is neither too sweet nor too sour.
Sheppi Duck is a classic Cantonese dish, as duck usually has thicker fat and skin. Tangerine peel can not only remove some of the unpleasant taste, but also balance the flavor.
The duck is first cooked with ginger, scallions, salt and dark soy sauce for rich flavor, then the skin is added about 10 minutes before the dish is ready.
The same idea can be applied to other meat soups and stews, such as pairing aged bark with pork short ribs or beef brisket.
A few shreds of aged tangerine zest can also be soaked in water to reconstitute, then topped with steamed fish with shredded green onions and ginger to enhance the flavor.
Tangerine peel is also made into candied preserves by separating the outer citrus peel from the bitter white pith, then boiled in water to remove the bitter taste.
Then make a syrup with water, liquorice, salt and candy sugar, boil the mandarin peelings in the mixture so that it takes on a good taste.
The skin is then drained (without pressing or squeezing as this will take away the flavor) and then cooked until it is half dry. The peelings are infused again in the syrup to absorb the liquid, then cooked again half dry.
When you enjoy store bought chenpi snacks, it is important to be aware of the level of sodium, as the intense flavor is achieved by adding a large amount of sugar and salt – so it is ideal to consume it in moderate amounts.
Aged tangerine peel candy is a very appetizing sweet treat with an obvious salty flavor, which is often eaten before a meal to stimulate the appetite without leaving too much sweet taste in the mouth.