Despite the passing of time, such delights remain fresh in my mind as though they happened yesterday. When our grandmother told the much younger me and my brother to pick the ripe fruit from the kumquat tree when Tet was over to make a special juice, we were both very excited. We picked the fruit like small farmers harvesting their crop. Today, decorative kumquat trees are no longer used to eat or drink because they are usually sprayed with chemicals. Kumquats for eating and drinking are sold at markets, so it’s hard to relive our joyful harvest at the end of Tet by using the fruit that has adorned our home for a few weeks.
More than harvesting, it was also a fun game. After ‘playing’ with the kumquat fruit by cleaning them in water, we then used a toothpick to puncture their skin. This, my grandmother explained, helps to reduce the sap and the skin’s bitterness. We held the fruit very carefully so as not to bruise it.
My grandmother then put the fruit into a bowl of salty water for half an hour, before taking it out to dry in a basket. We stared at the drops of water slowly falling from basket and tried to be patient, as she said that if the fruit is wet it might get mouldy later on.
Under the ‘command’ of our ‘General’, we put a layer of sugar on the bottom of a jar before adding a layer of kumquat and continued with these layers before closing it with a lid. We then had to wait for three months before the fruit was ready, and for the first few days my brother and I looked at the jar dozens of times and drove my grandmother crazy with a host of questions about how it was going.
Like all kids, our attention soon went elsewhere and we all but forgot about the jar. After coming home from school one day we were surprised to see two yummy-looking glasses of yellow drink waiting for us with a floating kumquat on top. It wasn’t just yummy-looking either; I’ll never forget the sweet and sour taste cooled with ice flowing down my throat while the fruit melted in my mouth. It felt like my tongue was bathing in a fancy stream that summer day. And my brother and I felt so proud that, with grandma’s help, we had made this stream!
Sugar or salt stream?
Apricot juice. Photo: Le Diem
Excited with our first success, as ‘little explorers’ we were eager to discover more streams in other forests, under the instruction of our talented General.
One of our next destinations was the apricot forest, which is usually abundant at the beginning of summer. Following my grandma to the load of light-yellow apricots at the market, I tried to select the biggest fruit with the freshest smell and thinnest skin, but not too soft, which were the best for making drinks.
With the experience from preparing the kumquat, doing so with the apricot was much easier and didn’t include puncturing the skin. It was even more interesting too, as this time we could discover two streams at the same time: one with sugar and one with salt. I was curious to discover the difference between them but needed to wait six months or more, as my grandma said the longer the time it sat the more delicious the taste would be.
She was right. After three months I couldn’t wait any longer so tried to drink it, but it was very bitter. After nearly a year, though, it had acquired a strong, delicious flavour. At that time, like many other kids, I preferred the one with sugar as it was sweeter. But when I got older the one with the salt became my favourite, as it had a unique mixture of sweetness, sourness, and saltiness. I always felt refreshed after drinking it, and my grandma, who is also a herbal doctor, told me that apricot is good for metabolism.
Dracontomelon juice. Photo: Le Diem
Not just apricot and kumquat have both a nice taste and a good effect on the health. Dracontomelon, a rare species of fruit found only in Southeast Asia, also has a unique flavour and is helpful in treating coughs, sore throats, indigestion and rashes. Blossoming in summer, it is an amazingly refreshing beverage during hot weather. Better still, it didn’t challenge my patience as a young girl, as I could drink it not long after the preparation process was finished.
Everything, though, has a price. Because the process is faster it’s also more complicated. My grandma did most of the work and I just helped her clean the young green fruit and watched her at work. While carefully scraping the skin away with a knife, she explained to me that it’s better to scrape than to whittle because it helps keep it crisp. Then she incised a spiral slot around the scraped fruits to make them quickly absorb the sugar solution. The fruit was then put into boiling water until its colour turned light yellow.
It was then the time for my ‘professional’ job: layering the fruit and sugar in a big pot. After one night I picked up all the fruit to put into a jar before my grandma boiled the sugar solution with ginger and poured it into the jar. Two days later I opened the jar to take a drink, but was doubtful it would be tasty. But it had a surprisingly amazing taste, similar and yet quite different from the sweet and sour flavour of kumquat and apricots. It was a truly magical stream that took me only three days to explore.
More magical streams
My grandma, the magician, also helped me to find another stream in the mulberry garden behind my house. Like dracontomelon, mulberry can also be enjoyed quickly, just a week or so after the preparation process is finished. The deep red stream is gentle sweet, like a cool breeze in summer.
Mulberry. Photo: Ziashusha.
My collection of yummy streams became bigger as I explored more miracle local fruit. Although none of them gave me the same feeling as those first ones, because my grandma, my General, my magician and my fairy, no longer stood beside me telling me what to do or just to watch as she performed some mysterious type of sorcery before my eyes, they were still memorable experiences that stemmed from the first lessons she gave me. Whenever Tet comes, I take a look at the collection in my home (or in my mind) to decide which one will take me back to my childhood or may even search for a new stream.