Reflections on chen pi and a passing mandarin season

We have had a surprisingly decent mandarin season this year.

Art by Shania O'Brien.

You can tell that it’s mandarin season when the winds start to blow a little colder in May. It’s late July now and Imperial mandarin season is waning, the growing absence filled by the unfolding harvests of Hickson, Afourer, and Daisy varieties. 

We have had a surprisingly decent mandarin season this year. Mandarins are possibly my favourite fruit, and so I invest a great deal of my hopes in every passing season. Last year’s mandarin season was fairly mediocre, the sweet taste of the fruit perhaps tainted by the bitter ennui and despair of indefinite lockdown. Still, I ate many mandarins and held onto the peels. My family doesn’t dispose of the mandarin peels; instead, we dry them out to make chen pi.

Chen pi are sun-dried mandarin peels; they don’t go bad as long as they’re kept in a cool, dry place. These dried peels have been used in Chinese cooking for centuries, adding a subtle citrus aroma to whatever you’re making. Supposedly, they also have medicinal properties; Mum dries out the chen pi because it helps to circulate qi (believed in Chinese medicine and philosophy to be the life force of everything in the world) in the spleen and stomach, strengthening digestion.

On one of my visits to my grandparents’ Westmead apartment, my yeye showed me the chen pi that he had been aging for two decades; precisely, he says, since the year 2000, year of the dragon, year of the Sydney Olympics, the year I was born and the first year that he spent in Australia. In Chinese medicine, older chen pi are considered more potent than fresh ones. Yeye holds the chen pi up to my nose – “壙寧苟!” – and I stare at them for a second, sitting at the bottom of a recycled baby formula tin with a masking-tape label covered in scratchy Chinese characters. I take a sniff and it smells exactly like you think it would smell; an honest, wispy smell of time and zest. As yeye pulls away, taking the lingering fragrance of the mandarin-scented past with him, I think about my mandarin trees.

In my mum’s backyard, we have a variety of fruit trees, choked with an overgrown lawn and gnarled by nature’s passage. There are a number of papaya trees growing around the yard. From our back door, you can spot the rootbound yuzu tree that lives in the baby-blue terracotta pot next to an old koi pond that has neither water nor koi in it anymore. If you glance to the back left corner of the yard near the bottlebrush tree, you’ll spot a white guava tree stooped with the weight of the fly-bitten fruit (we never get to it in time to bag the budding fruit; maybe next year). I wouldn’t blame you if you overlooked the lime tree growing slightly behind it, their leaves and fruit pressed so closely together that an onlooker might be forgiven for thinking that they were one and the same.

But the prize of our overgrown place is the pair of mandarin trees that reach for each other to the right of the dilapidated ting (Chinese pagoda) that looms over the backyard. I still don’t know what variety of mandarin grows on their branches – as an Imperial mandarin purist myself, I don’t pick from the trees – but every year without fail, the twin mandarin trees bear their many fruits.

The next time I visit my grandparents, my yeye reminds me to bring him some mandarins from our backyard trees.

Each year, I am the primary source of fresh mandarin peels in my family. Mum reminds me to keep the peels of all the Imperials that I’m eating – I go through them ravenously – and my room now smells like mandarins and earthiness. I make little flowers of the mandarin peels as I go, placing one peel on top of the next, until there are petally towers sitting next to my favourite orange blossom candle on the shelf. Each May to July, I eat so many mandarins that Mum genuinely worries that I will turn orange.

If you have any spare mandarin peels lying around, you might want to dabble in drying out chen pi. In China, the best variety to use is the Xinhui from the province of the same name in southern China. Take your peels, wash them and scrape away most of the white pith with a spoon, then leave on a warm, dry windowsill or a warm room. The peels will shrink and darken over time, signalling that they are drying out, and when they’re completely dry, you can put them in an airtight container and store them in a cool dry place. Mum likes to take the shortcut of drying the chen pi in an oven at a low temperature.

Many Eastern cultures view fruit as an offering of hospitality and a hand offered in community. It is a fruit that carries love, hopes and good wishes; a heavy burden for any fruit to bear. Fruit is love and Ellie brings me fruit when she comes over. One time, she brought me mandarins.

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