If you were to look in the backyard of every Filipino household in Australia, Fides Santos-Arguelles wonders if you’d find dozens, if not hundreds, of calamansi trees.
She, herself, has a 35-year-old calamansi tree, that was planted by her father after the family moved to Melbourne from the Philippines. “My understanding is that, for him, it was this humble thing that connects us back home. It’s connecting us to our food, which is a big part of our identity, our heritage and our culture,” says the co-founder of The Entree.Pinays, a group that promotes Filipino cuisine.
Calamansi (also known as kalamansi and calamondin) is a small citrus fruit, with a bright orange flesh and a peel that goes from green to orange as it ripens. It tastes sour with a hint of sweetness, like a mix between a lime and a mandarin. It has a distinctive aroma – citrusy and floral. You’ll see it used in different Asian cuisines, but first and foremost in the Philippines, where it’s an essential ingredient.
Calamansi, Italian meringue and a buttery biscuit base - this zesty oven-baked treat make a refreshing and indulgent end to a meal to celebrate the citrus bounty that is calamansi. If you do not have calamansi on hand, feel free to replace with limes.
“It’s the most amazing citrus. When you go to any barbecue or seafood houses in the Philippines, it’s a staple. You use it to marinate, you use it to eat with seafood on the beach, with chicken and pork at barbecues,” says chef Ross Magnaye. “People have it in their backyards, but there are also farmers growing it for commercial use. You have calamansi juice, calamansi soda, calamansi dishwashing liquid.”
Magnaye also uses the juice in curd for desserts, and turns the whole fruit into jam.
Filipino restaurant Chibog serves a calamansi cocktail, Boba Bar does a “kalamansi kooler” and Vietnamese-Lao restaurant Anchovy used to offer oysters with calamansi. Earlier this year, restaurant Rice Paper Scissors and distiller Little Lon launched a small-batch gin flavoured with local calamansi.
“It’s the most amazing citrus. When you go to any barbecue or seafood houses in the Philippines, it’s a staple."
Santos-Arguelles saw calamansi on the menu of a non-Filipino restaurant for the first time at the 2018 Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, during a dinner at Copper Pot Seddon. After the restaurant asked the public for produce from their backyards, she provided calamansi from her tree, which ended up in a marmalade to accompany pork knuckle.
She’d love for calamansi to follow a trajectory similar to yuzu, which is now grown in Australia and is very popular among chefs. “We’re seeing it as an opportunity to share our migrant story and also to commercialise the calamansi tree,” she explains.
While it is possible to find calamansi juice and pulp online and from importers, the prices are high. And like with most things, fresh is best anyway. So it would make sense to grow calamansi trees here. “It’s easy to grow, all you need is good water and tender loving care. My contacts in the Philippines say it takes only about two years from planting to the tree producing fruit,” says Santos-Arguelles.
“We have a lot of land in Australia, and lots of farmers. Talking about sustainability and local produce, why not consider growing calamansi in our own backyard, in regional Victoria, for example?”
Like Santos-Arguelles, Magnaye believes there’s a market for calamansi in Australia, from Filipino restaurants to cocktail bars to chefs interested in working with lesser-known ingredients.
“We’re seeing it as an opportunity to share our migrant story and also to commercialise the calamansi tree.”
“It could really take off,” he says.
And with Filipino cuisine becoming increasingly popular, it seems like there’s no better time than now. “If we try to bring Filipino food to the mainstream, can we do that through the calamansi story? I think we can, it’s so adaptable, just like us,” concludes Santos-Arguelles.
Unlike other chicken soup recipes, Filipino native chicken soup, or binakol, is made using coconut water instead of plain water or stock.
Sinigang is a popular Filipino soup with a trademark sour flavour. It can be made with meat or fish, like this recipe.