kalamansî / calamansi

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Illustration by Francisco Manuel Blanco [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The most widely grown and consumed species of citrus in the Philippines, calamansi are ubiquitous in cooking across the Philippine islands. Scientific name: Citrofortunella microcarpa.

Calamansi are known by a host of names. Via Wikipedia, these include the popular calamondin, calamandarin and golden lime, and the less heard-of Philippine lime, Panama orange, Chinese orange, musk orange and acid orange; in Tagalog, it’s called kalamunding, calamansi or kalamansî; in Visayan, limonsito or simuyaw; and in Malaysia as limau kasturi.

According to the Calamansi Production Guide (with information from the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development), the calamansi tree “is evergreen and small, attaining a height of 2-7.5 m at maturity; its broadly egg-shaped leaves are dark green above and pale green below.”

Its fragrant white flowers are “grouped in clusters,” it continues, and its fruit round, “with a greenish yellow to orange skin” that peels away like butter at the calamansi fruit’s peak – the way most Filipinos consume them, coloured a lime to dark lime green and weighing a few grams each (keeping an eye for exceptional size to density ratio). Today I learned that green calamansi are actually the fruit in its unripe state – and I used to think it strange that calamondin trees from North America had yellow fruit!

Cross-section of a calamansi

“There are six to ten segments in [each] fruit,” the guide continues, each with anywhere from four to eleven seeds inside. Each juicy little pod of citrus (which I always think resembles a large teardrop) produce a “very acidic” yellow to orange coloured juice, that surprisingly yields more than what you think one tiny fruit can hold.

Because calamansi are grown from seedlings produced by their mother tree, the guide suggests it could very well be that all the calamansi trees grown in the Philippines (across the country’s vastly different geographical regions) belong to only one botanical variety. (Editor’s note: does anyone know where further research stands on this?)

A global history

According to the Fruits of Warm Climates by Julia Morton, “the calamondin is believed native to China and thought to have been taken in early times to Indonesia and the Philippines.” It became “the most important citrus juice source in the Philippine Islands,” Morton says, “and is widely grown in India and throughout southern Asia and Malaysia.”

Morton reports that calamondin trees became popular ornamental plants in Hawaii, the Bahamas, the West Indies and Central America; that the tree was brought into Florida via Panama in 1899, and that the calamondin is “as cold-hardy as the Satsuma orange and can be grown all along the Gulf Coast of the southern United States. Calamondins were so popular throughout the 1920s to 50s (as seen in this mid-century recipe by A Cook’s California) that calamondin pies, cakes and preserves [pdf] were reputed to be part of the Florida home baker’s repertoire.

Calamansi in Philippine cooking

As sawsawan (dipping sauce): Calamansi orbs are halved and its juice is squeezed into little saucers, to which one could add soy sauce, smashed or minced garlic, and whole or sliced chilies, possibly with whole peppercorns, a dried bay leaf, or additional varieties of pepper.

To my mind, all you need to create the highly addictive, salty-sour punch of the greatest condiment on earth are two ingredients: calamansi and soy sauce. Toyomansi (‘toyo’ being Tagalog for soy sauce, ‘mansi’ being the latter part of calamansi) is a great example of a condiment being so fine-tuned to your taste; it’s on you to make it as refreshingly tart and zingy, or as lipsmackingly savoury and umami-packed as possible. 

Right now, that makes me crave a piece of smoky inihaw na tilapia (grilled whole tilapia) lifted straight off a grill, split down the spine to reveal its milky white flesh, generously dribbling toyomansi over each fillet. I can smell coconut husks from the grill’s embers, and the sweet, honey-like allure of just-steamed white Milagrosa rice (a long-grain variety sold in North America as the ‘Jasmine fragrant’) on my plate. Freshly caught fish prepared simply, served immediately, tailored to my liking. YUM.

As part of a babad (marinade): Because toyomansi is such a reliable (and affordable) condiment, Filipino home cooks use the tandem to marinate a range of meats. Frying thinly sliced pork chops or chicken drumsticks marinated with toyomansi, salt and pepper became a popular weeknight ulam (or viand eaten with rice). Weekend or special occasion-worthy inihaw na liempo (grilled pork belly) is unimaginable without the flavour imparted by a moderate soak in toyomansi. Bistek, that other quick-fry option that’s a staple in many Filipino homes, has to have a hit of calamansi juice in the marinade; get that balance of citrus, soy sauce, caramelized onions and nearly dry-fried beef right, and whomever you’re living with will have to keep you around. 

Further reading:

This study conducted by Cornell University students on challenges faced by the Philippine Calamansi Association Inc (PCAI). The paper provides a really good understanding of how calamansi-producing regions in the Philippines currently operate, and the study’s SWOT analysis in particular is on point. It’s a detailed read, but informative.

• A Philippine Star article from July 2015 about a six-course calamansi-centric tasting menu prepared by David Bouley at the Michelin-starred Bouley Restaurant in Manhattan. Monkfish cheeks and cod in a dashi broth topped with calamansi and black truffles sound delectable!

• Tasting notes on the Calamansi Milkshake IPA brewed by the Tired Hands Brewing Company in Pennsylvania. Wish I could sample some of that!

• Burnt Lumpia’s idea for using calamansi syrup in his drink The Ilocano. We have a bottle of gin from the Toronto Distillery Company that I’ll need to try with that!

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