Califonia Bountiful

Yum's the word

July/August 2020 California Bountiful magazine

Californians relish their first taste of exotic yangmei

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The Asian stone fruit yangmei comes from an evergreen tree in the same family as eucalyptus, guava and myrtle. Photo: © 2020 Lori Eanes

Ask Yunfei Chen to describe the taste of the Asian fruit yangmei and the suburban backyard grower is stumped, instead offering how first-time tasters have described it to him: a mix of strawberry, mulberry and pomegranate.

To him, though, these comparisons don't quite hit the mark or do the fruit justice.

"I actually kind of disagree with them that it resembles any of those flavors," Chen said. "It has a unique flavor of its own. Until you taste it, it would be hard to accurately describe."

Perhaps that's why yangmei (pronounced yang-may), as it is called in China, has amassed so many different names, including bayberry, waxberry, Chinese strawberry, yamamomo in Japan and, more recently, yumberry. Its scientific name is Myrica rubra, and it's an evergreen tree in the same family as eucalyptus, guava and myrtle.

Until Chen's backyard plantings in Alameda County bore fruit in 2015, yangmei represented a "taste from my childhood," he said, as the sweet and tart subtropical stone fruit had been absent from his life after he moved to the States from China's eastern province of Zhejiang, famous for its yangmei production.

Along with his business partner, Charlie Lucero, and several California growers, Chen has been working to commercialize yangmei in the U.S., where you'd be hard-pressed to find the fresh fruit anywhere. Chen and Lucero's company Calmei is now the first U.S. supplier of California-grown yangmei, selling its first harvest last year at the San Francisco specialty grocer Bi-Rite Market.

"I want to make this a major fruit crop in the U.S., not just in China," Chen said.

Yunfei Chen grows yangmei in his backyard in Fremont. Photo: © 2020 Lori Eanes

From seed to market in 10 years

With fruit ranging in color from bright red to deep burgundy, yangmei is between the size of a Bing cherry and a small plum. Bumpy on the outside, the inside flesh reveals tiny, individual strands of fruit connected to a pit similar to that of a cherry. Imagine a little, edible pom-pom.

A scientist working in diagnostics and biotechnology—and known for his green thumb—Chen first started growing yangmei in 2009 from seeds a colleague gave him. A few years later, he joined efforts by members of the California Rare Fruit Growers, an amateur fruit-growing organization with enthusiasts all over the world, to import trees from China and cultivate yangmei.

Though none of the imported trees lived long enough to bear fruit, Chen managed to cut shoots from them and grafted the cuttings to the seed-grown yangmei plants he started in 2009, successfully growing the trees to production.

Lucero, whose background is in law and Chinese history, heard about Chen's plantings through the CRFG group and approached him about starting a business. Limited quantities from Chen's trees are expected to hit the market again this year. Though the fruit sold for about $50 a pound last year, Lucero said the high price served more to generate attention and that it won't be "crazy-expensive like caviar" as production increases.

"It will never be as common as cherries," he said, "but we're fine with that as long as it's out there and available. People seem to be intrigued by it because it's a beautiful-looking fruit. I think the taste will win over people."

Yangmei from Chen's backyard made its debut last year at Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco, selling for $49.99 a pound. Photo: © 2020 Lori Eanes

Farmer wonders, is this the new kiwifruit?

Bin Hu and her husband, Lawrence Lee, are now growing some of Calmei's first commercial plantings of yangmei on their farm in Vacaville. The couple came from the high-tech industry, she an engineer and he on the business side. Hu said she initially viewed the farm more as a hobby than a business venture, as growing yangmei serves to satisfy a nostalgic longing for the fruit that's abundant in the mountains of her native hometown in Zhejiang province. She recounted childhood memories of feasting from wild yangmei trees all day long, so much that her mouth got sore.

"But it was so good. You just can't stop," she said.

It had been more than 25 years since she'd had any yangmei when she saw Chen successfully grew the trees in his backyard, Hu noted.

"I'm like, 'Wow, let's talk. We have a farm and we're trying to figure out what to do with the farm,'" she said.

Hu acknowledged the risk of trying to grow yangmei in California, where the dry, hot summers are unlike the warm, humid climate of Zhejiang province where yangmei thrives. Some of Hu and Lee's initial plantings did not survive, but Hu said her deep-rooted feelings about the fruit and her belief in its market potential have kept her planting more yangmei—and experimenting with how best to grow it in the Golden State.

With its "excellent flavor," yangmei would appeal not only to Chinese fans of the fruit but more generally, she said, noting the "overwhelming" response from non-Asian shoppers at Bi-Rite Market when yangmei made its debut there last year. Hu said she envisions yangmei becoming the new kiwifruit, also native to eastern China and once considered an exotic fruit before Australians commercialized it.

"We believe (yangmei) can become a very popular exotic fruit on America's dining table," she said. "Plus, when you look at it—it's so pretty."

Shoppers at Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco have discovered creative ways to enjoy yangmei, including making syrup, jelly, candy and ice cream. Photo: © 2020 Lori Eanes

Big potential for small fruit

Lee, who is Chinese but grew up in Malaysia, had never experienced fresh yangmei until two years ago in Chen's backyard and on a recent trip to China. He said he remembers dried, candied versions of yangmei as a kid and liked it, but now prefers to eat yangmei "straight up."

"It's refreshing, so you think about it when it's a hot day—like I'm thinking about it now and I salivate," Lee said.

He said he thinks yangmei could someday become a staple summer fruit in the U.S., with the market appeal of strawberries and raspberries, except it would be a bit more expensive because of its limited availability and short season—about three weeks starting in late June and early July, depending on the weather.

Lucero said it's been interesting to see the Instagram posts of people who bought yangmei at Bi-Rite and what they did with it—from making yangmei syrup to jelly, candy and ice cream. In China, yangmei has been used medicinally for centuries, he said, though it is most often eaten as a fresh fruit. In addition to being dried and candied, the fruit has been made into juice and yangmei-infused alcoholic drinks. Hu said frozen yangmei would make great smoothies. The fruit would also go well in a barbecue sauce or as a marinade for meat, she added.

Lucero said Calmei hopes to bring yangmei out of obscurity in the U.S. by getting it "front and center to tastemakers and influencers" such as chefs, to develop recipes and more uses for the fruit. He noted the company has already received "a lot of inquiries" from grocery stores across the country and from restaurants as far away as Boston, saying they want to incorporate yangmei in their cocktail menus.

"I'm excited for what the future brings," he said. "It's a great platform for people to do new and exciting things."

Ching Lee

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