Tiny oranges

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!

10 Responses to “Tiny oranges”

  1. Guy Says:

    Watch for Pixie tangerines. Yummy!!! http://www.pixietangerine.com/ They should show up in March; last year I missed them entirely. 😦 This year, I signed up for their e-mail alert.

  2. joshe Says:

    Even more fun is picking your own Satsumas. They have a Mandarin Festival every year with tons of u-pick farms near Sacramento. We brought back bushels and ate through them very quickly!


  3. mde Says:

    When I was a boy, my granddaddy had Satsuma trees in his backyard. I loved the sweet taste and how easy they were to peel.

    It was fun to find out when I moved to Japan that ‘Satsuma’ is the old-fashioned name for Kagoshima prefecture, which adjoined Kumamoto, where I lived, in southern Japan. It’s still the area where you get the best Satsumas.

    Now I tend to call them ‘Mikan,’ which is the Japanese name. I dearly wish I could find a place here in Houston to buy those fragrant, sweet mikan.

  4. Ellen McCarthy Says:

    Hey, would you call me? I’m working on a story about employers and blogging.

    Many thanks,
    Ellen McCarthy
    The Washington Post

  5. Juls Says:

    Girl – I too researched this one winter (along with avocado varieties too) and came to the opposite conclusion. We have had better experience with clementines (fewer pits, easier to peel!) than the satsumas. We must be going to totally different suppliers!!!

  6. Lew Moore Says:

    Ah, Satsumas are great. I thought they only grew in the deep South. South of New Orleans, and some in way South Alabama.

    I’m surprised to find them as far north as Sacramento, and in Japan! And they are oriental.


  7. G Roper Says:

    If you’ve got too many satsumas, satsuma marmalade is really easy to make:

    Cut and boil diced satsumas in water. The peel will soften and the seeds can be easily pressed out while boiling.

    Now add sugar while boiling until it’s sweet enough to balance the tartness. Hint: it takes a surprising amount of sugar. Then continue boiling until it reaches a temperature of 220 to 222 degrees F, or 105 degrees C, which is required for the pectin in the peel to gel. [If you don’t have a thermometer, you can take out a small amount and, when dropped on a dish and cooled, you can press it and it’s firm (doesn’t stick) then you’re done.]

    Pour it into some old jars, cool and enjoy!

  8. Chris Says:

    This puzzling over species lines reminds me of Charles Darwin in _The Origin of Species_. Fairly early in the book he discusses the species of oak trees in Europe, and he concludes that in many cases the species boundaries are fuzzy and arbitrary. 🙂

    ‘Species’ are often oversimplifying categories created for finite human minds. 🙂

  9. Ralene Snow Says:

    We, Snow’s Citrus Court, raiseOwari Satsuma Mandarin oranges. We ship too. Harvest season is November through January. We’re farmers in the Sierra Foothills, just north east of Sacramento. We have wonderful citrus, specializing in the delicious Mandarin orange. If you have any questions about the fruit; interested in what it takes to raise the fruit; or want to order…let me know. Ralene Snow snow @snowscitrus.com http://www.snowscitrus.com

  10. Gary Gilligan Says:

    Mountain Mandarin Festival, November 21 – 23, 2008, 15th annual, Gold Country Fairgrounds, Auburn, California! Owari Satsuma Mandarin oranges – lots of local farmers selling the first of the Mandarin orange harvest. The festival has entertainment; good eats; jurored vendors; kids activities; recipe contest; Mandarin Festival Mercantile! Visit our web page for information and directions to the Festival. Gary Gilligan, Manager, Mountain Mandarin Festival http://www.mandarinfestival.com

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