Yangmei berries! Are you excited? You should be... at least if you live in Asia. If you don't, you're missing out on some serious deliciousness. (Come visit!)
June in Shanghai means yangmei berry (yángméi, 杨梅) season. The deep red globular fruit appears suddenly and floods the street corners and wet markets, only to disappear again a few short weeks later. With yearly availability limited to about a month, it is a short-lived but highly-anticipated treat.
The yangmei berry, also known as the Chinese bayberry, waxberry, Chinese strawberry, and, more recently, "yumberry", grows on the Myrica rubra tree in the hot, humid climate of Zhejiang province (just south of Shanghai). The berries are akin to ping pong balls in shape and size, with a bumpy, modular outside (like a raspberry) and a cherry pit at the core. They range from crimson to dark purple in color; the darker berries are sweeter while the brighter ones are more tart and astringent. While the fruit itself is unavailable in the US, due both to its extremely short shelf life and a ban on importation, its juice can occasionally be found. Imagine a flavor profile combining all the best characteristics of strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, and pomegranate. That's a yangmei berry.
Yangmei berries are packed with antioxidants, earning them a "superfood" label; all types of health benefits have been ascribed to them (anticancer, antiviral, cardiovascular health, etc, etc), though few have been scientifically validated. In China, they're traditionally thought to help with stomach ailments.
In the company of our close Chinese friends, we ventured three hours south of Shanghai to Ningbo, an epicenter of yangmei production, to pick our own. According to a 2007 New York Times article, yangmei production in China has surpassed 865,000 acres; by comparison, the US has about 856,000 acres of citrus trees and 1,044,000 acres of grapes, the only American fruit crop with greater acreage. We came home from the weekend with crimson-stained clothes and fingers, and nearly 20 kilos of yangmei.
We eat as many fresh yangmei berries as we can, but they last only a few days before starting to spoil. The rest are preserved either by freezing (for use as yangmei ice cubes in drinks, or for thawing at a later date) or in baijiu (Chinese hard alcohol). Caveat: after a year of sitting, the alcohol becomes heavily concentrated in the berries, leaving the liquid deliciously flavored and lightly alcoholic and the berries as strong as shots!