February 6, 2006
I was standing in the grocery store, looking at a stand with mandarins, tangerines, clementines, and satsumas, unable to decide which ones to buy. Then I started wondering: what’s the difference anyway? How do you tell them apart? Are the clementines and satsumas worth the extra money (at least around here, you often have to buy them in larger quantities as well as at a premium price)? After hours of research, I’m ready with the answers.
The one fact that almost everyone seems to agree on is that the most general term for these little oranges is “mandarin”, aka Citrus reticulata. However, there’s some disagreement about whether “tangerines” really exist at all. The USDA implies that “mandarin” is the more correct term, J. Morton’s Fruits of Warm Climates says the two names are basically synonymous but usually “tangerine” denotes the deeper-colored subvarieties, and several sources including Wikipedia baldly state that tangerines are a subtype of mandarin. In any case tangerines are also Citrus reticulata. Whatever you call them, I have had mixed experiences with mandarins/tangerines. They can be hard to peel, have a lot of seeds, be seriously overripe or underripe, and just sort of tasteless.
Clementines are either a subtype of tangerine (USDA); or they are a hybrid cross between Mandarins and oranges (Wikipedia) — but in that case, I don’t see how they can be Mandarins at all, since how can a cross of Citrus reticulata and Citrus sinensus be itself a Citrus reticulata?. The question is fatally confused by the fact that apparently your normal orange Citrus sinensus itself might be an ancient hybrid of the pomelo (Citrus maxima) and the mandarin. All this inbreeding makes one wonder if these species lines are really all that firm in the world of fruits. In any case, everyone agrees that clementines are shiny and juicy and thin-skinned; and some writers seem to favor them highly. The Wikipedia entry claims they taste like apricot nectar — but to be honest, I can’t say I’ve noticed any heavenly flavors myself.
Satsumas are often said to be a variety of mandarin, but they unexpectedly have their own species name! And it’s Asian! Citrus unshiu is easily identifiable by its loose, relatively unshiny skin; and in many markets here it seems to be sold with twigs and leaves still attached. For my money, this is the pick of the litter — it’s the easiest to peel, and has the most aroma and the fewest seeds. The only problem is that it’s impossible to tell the ripeness and quality of the fruit due to the saggy skin, so you have to trust your vendor.
The result of all my research is: buy satsumas and enjoy them because they are yummy. I highly favor letting the individual pieces dry at room temperature for about an hour before eating them. And there you have it: I have overthought so you don’t have to!