Monday, May 27, 2013

A good time to be in Taiwan

Taiwan is a food-lover’s paradise, and in late May two of its greatest seasonal specialties make their appearance, shu mei (berries) and Yu-he-bao lychees.   

Shu mei are the lesser known of the two. The name means literally tree-berry, officially Myrica rubra. Since I am in Taiwan I will call them Shu-mei  (樹梅 ), their local name; in China they are known as yang-mei (梅). There is also a host of English names, among them red bayberry. (They are related to the waxy bayberries that grow in the Eastern U.S., the ones made into candles. although the edible ones are juicy, not waxy.)

One of the most welcome sights in Taiwan—a bowl of shu-mei. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

The extremely beautiful berries are bright red in color, darkening to purple as they ripen. They are sweet yet very tart, and have one of the best fruit flavors I have ever experienced. The season only lasts a week or so, and shu-mei are often not seen in regular stores. This year I located my supply from a street vendor in the Shi-lin night market.

The jewel-like shu-mei as displayed by their vendor.

Shu-mei are one of the most delicate of fruits, so they should be consumed immediately, admittedly not a very difficult task.  Within a day or two they will turn to vinegar, even in the refrigerator.

They are best simply eaten out of hand. They have a stone in the middle, kind of like a cherry, and the fruit is composed of juicy cells that radiate from the seed to the outside of the fruit. The darker berries are sweeter and less acid, yet the sprightliness of the shu-mei comes from their tartness, so if you insist on very ripe ones, the flavor won’t be as exciting.  

I attempted to cut one berry open to reveal the internal structure.

I did try to get the juice out of a few and make a sort of shumei-ade. It was a beautiful pink-red color, and very delicious, but these berries are so precious that unless I had my own tree, I would prefer to eat them fresh.

The evergreen trees are very handsome with their long leaves, and even more ornamental when bearing  their bright fruit. They grow in a number of warm places, and I am sure that they would do well in Florida.

I wish I were in a position to grow a few of these shu-mei trees.  Source:

Shu-mei are surpassingly beautiful berries. Yu-he-bao lychees, on the other hand, do not have such a prepossessing appearance. Regular lychees, as you may know, are bright red with a scaly outer shell, juicy white flesh, and a large seed that often takes up half the fruit. Yu he bao are green with a reddish tinge; even when ripe, they never turn completely red, and the shell is prickly rather than scaly.

Everyone in Taiwan knows what a treat is waiting in these plain-looking fruits.

They are larger than most other lychees, and amazingly, when you open them, the seeds are very tiny, giving you a generous quantity of  extra-juicy flesh. Most people also believe that Yu he bao have the best flavor-- they are very sweet, with a tiny sub-acid addition that underlines the taste and gives it complexity.  The season is much longer than for shu-mei. As a rule, the first lychee to appear in May are the Yu-he-bao, and their season can last over a month.

The Yu-he-bao lychees cut open show their plentiful meat and small seeds.

These fruits are a perfect example of something better enjoyed in its native habitat. I can’t imagine that shu-mei could travel at all, and while I have eaten lychees in America, they were only a shadow of their luscious perfection in Taiwan, consumed within hours of their picking. In the same vein, the crisp tartness of good fall apples, or the honeyed sweetness of fruits like mayapples, will have to remain a closed book to those who live in warm climates.

Taiwan has many types of exceptional produce and a plethora of regional dishes, but when shu-mei or Yu-he-bao are available, other specialties are forgotten, and my life suddenly centers around them. They are such a treat that my top priority becomes getting as many as I possibly can.

A fresh package of shu mei, about to disappear.

(All photos by the author, except where noted.)