Lemons & Life

by Anita Cheung

‘Don’t just sit there like a lemon!  Write something!’  

Such is my personal method for encouraging myself to be more productive.  I always find comfort in referring to myself as an item of food and I’m not sure why that is!  Within my family, if one of us does something silly, we often refer to the transgressor as a ‘noodle’.  However, perhaps my favourite saying including lemons is; ‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!’  One can never be too positive especially when life delivers lemons quite frequently, whether that be one at a time or a complete pelting of lemons.  Just recently, I came up with an alternative to this expression which bears the influence of my love of the sea and the ocean; ‘When life brings waves your way, learn how to surf!’  Whether it’s surfing the waves or making lemonade, the message is the same - turn your trials into victories.  We won’t be battered by lemons, drowned in lemon juice or by the waves that life brings our way so long as we see these as new opportunities for growth in life.

In the kitchen though, when it comes to versatility, I can think of no fruit or vegetable more obliging than the lemon.  Filled with health benefits for the kitchen, used in both savoury and sweet dishes, a decorative garnish, made into juice, used in teas and infusions, an essential ingredient in many cocktails, a cleaning agent for the home, essence that can be burned and multiple skin, hair and nail care products to fill our bathrooms, the lemon truly is an essential that no home can be without.

When ingested, one medium-sized lemon provides around 40mgs of vitamin C, which is roughly half of the recommended daily intake (90mgs - men, 75mgs - women, 80 mgs - pregnant teens, 85mgs - pregnant women)  The juice is 5% - 6% citric acid with a pH of 2.2.  The flavour can be described as very sharp, bitter or acidic and it is therefore not a popular fruit to be enjoyed on its own.  It is, however, the ideal flavour that adds zest to so many recipes.

For example, take a roast chicken.  For those who enjoy roasts, a roast chicken is a staple of every kitchen with an oven. Roast the chicken with cloves of garlic stuffed into incisions made by a knife in the skin, pour white wine and the juice of one lemon over the top of the chicken (allowing for about 1cm of juice/wine in the casserole or roasting dish) and suddenly, the traditional roast chicken has become a speciality of its own.

Aioli is a traditional sauce from the region of Provence in France made of garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and sometimes egg yolks.  The ‘Sauce Vierge’ (also from France) is made with olive oil, chopped tomato, chopped basil and lemon juice.  The Italians use lemon juice in their famous ‘Linguine al vongole’ dish.  This dish boasts a clam sauce which includes minced clams, olive oil, garlic, tomato-based sauce and of course, lemon juice. 

As a natural winter warmer, the lemon has made its way into many teas and infusions, many of which are considered homeopathic remedies for minor ailments.  The infusion of honey, ginger and lemon is a popular home remedy used by many as a remedy to relieve the symptoms of the common cold.  It is also used in combinations with lime blossom, clover, sage, thyme and melon to purify, energise, stimulate circulation and as a diuretic.

The lemon is not only popular in winter cuisine, but also in summer dishes.  Instead of traditional salad dressings, the juice of half a lemon (or one lemon according to preference) can be squeezed over a summer salad.  The salad takes on a zesty nature of its own, and lends itself perfectly to hot summer days and cold drinks.  In Peru, the national dish of ‘ceviche’ is raw fish that has been marinated in lemon juice with onions, coriander and capsicum.  The same method is used in the Cook Islands in the South Pacific to prepare ‘ika mata’, a traditional dish made from raw fish (usually tuna) which is marinated in either lime or lemon juice with coconut milk and garnished with raw vegetables, which makes a lovely fresh dish in the subtropical temperatures of Polynesia.

As popular as the lemon is in savoury dishes, it is also just as popular in desserts and pastries.  These vary from country to country and across continents, but some of the most well-known are lemon cake, lemon meringue pie, lemon bars, lemon sorbet, lemon marmalade, lemon biscuits, lemon pudding, lemon tart, lemon mousse and lemon curd.  Really, the list is endless and I am amazed at how the lemon has become such an essential ingredient in so many dishes, both sweet and savoury.

However, the versatility of the lemon doesn’t stop there.  As previously mentioned, it is an essential ingredient of hot winter beverages and it is also popular in alcoholic drinks.  The juice is used in some cocktails such as the Cosmopolitan, Bee’s Knees, Lemon Drop and the popular Bloody Mary amongst many others.  In other cocktails it remains a stylish garnish that adds a little zest if allowed to remain within the drink for any period of time.  In cocktails, the lemon juice is also used to wipe around the rim of glasses before they are dipped in sugar to give a special frosted effect to some cocktails and of course, the Italians have made their own lemon-based liqueur, Limoncello.

In cold non-alcoholic drinks, the lemon is at its best when half a slice is dropped into a glass of water.  The lemon juice not only purifies the skin, but also breaks down fat within the body.  This is also recommended for those on diets who are seeking to lose weight.  The flavour of lemons has prompted the creation of popular drinks such as Sprite, lemon iced tea and traditional home-made lemonade.

The essential oil of the lemon is used in homeotherapy to control diets, weight-loss, blood circulation, difficult digestion following rich meals, cellulitis, skin problems, rheumatism, joint pain, boils as well as being an essential part of any January detox plan. Methods of application include massaging the oil into affected areas either directly or using a cotton pad, added to water (for a detox or to aid digestion) or diffused within the home to get rid of any winter blues in climates where there is a lack of sunlight.

Citrus limon is a hybrid between the bitter orange and citron.  It is native to South Asia and is thought to have originated in the northeast of India.  In fact its name originates from nimbū, which means ‘lime’ in Sanskrit, one of the recognised regional languages of India.  From there, the Persians called this fruit līmūn meaning ‘citrus fruit’.  The Arabs gave it the name laymūn or līmūn, which in turn has become limone in Italian, limon in French and lemon in English.

As I reflect upon this fruit, I cannot help but be aware of the fact that it is the most unlikely accompaniment to our kitchens and our homes.  It is almost impossible to eat the lemon by itself as the zesty nature of the lemon is too strong for most as well as being very bitter on the palate.  Surprisingly, it is this fruit, which is bitter when eaten alone, that has somehow made its way into not only every aspect of the kitchen of many cuisines throughout the world where it adds its own special zingy flavour to traditional recipes, but also into every area of the home.  In the same way, the trials that must be encountered at times in life also affect every area of living and in some similar way, over time those trials change characters, bring maturity and add zest to relationships, attitudes and activities.  Although sucking a lemon will never be a pleasant experience, allowing lemons to enhance our kitchens, bathrooms and homes changes everything by their very presence.

‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!’  Let me finish by adding one final thought; ‘When life keeps pelting you with lemons, blend them up and use them in your bloody mary mix!’

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