As sales boom, here’s help in finding the best of the fruit popularly known as tangerines.
Mandarins may seem an unlikely candidate for a marquee fruit. The most complex and flavorful of citrus, they are correspondingly difficult to grow, as demanding as wine grapes in their requirements for terroir and horticultural prowess. At their finest, they are juicy, sweet-tart and intensely aromatic, but many store-bought specimens are dry and bland. Shippers and merchants often store them far past their peak, and the seeds in traditional varieties can put off consumers.
To get the best of the mandarin boom, it helps to understand the fruit’s history, varieties and seasons.
Native to China and northeastern India, mandarins are one of five original types of citrus (along with pummelos, citrons, kumquats and papedas) from which all others, like oranges and grapefruit, are derived. Until recently, because most mandarins were relatively small, delicate or full of seeds, they remained less cultivated than other citrus in the United States.
To a greater extent than for other citrus, commercial packing can distort the flavor of many mandarins, including clementines. The washing needed for food safety strips the natural wax off fruits, and to keep them from drying out, packers apply artificial wax. This stops natural respiration, leading to the production of fermented and musty flavors, which are aggravated by prolonged storage and unrefrigerated conditions. The only recourse for shoppers is to taste or at least sniff a sample before buying.
The cutest, most child-friendly mandarin is the Seedless Kishu, an ancient Japanese specialty the size of a golf ball, very easy to peel, super sweet, with welcome acidity.