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When you experience the pop of a precious finger lime pearl in your mouth, you’ll not only receive a citrus flavour hit, you’ll encounter an array of health benefits.
Finger limes, an elongated citrus fruit filled with hundreds of little juicy capsules, are relatively new to western cuisine, having only been first mentioned in published literature in 1989.
But as chef and founder of Indigearth Sharon Winsor tells SBS, finger limes have been used by Indigenous communities on Australia’s east coast (living on Barunggam, Wakka Wakka, Bundjalung and Gumbainggir lands) for medicinal purposes for centuries.
"It was known that the citric acid content in finger limes would be good for treating skin infections."
“There are different health uses for finger limes in different areas,” explains Winsor, a bush food expert and Ngemba Weilwan woman from western NSW.
“But they were often used for skin purposes to heal cuts and wounds. It was known that the citric acid content in finger limes would be good for treating skin infections.
“So either the skin of the finger lime or the pearls inside were rubbed into the part of the skin that had a cut or infection to help the person to heal.”
Finger lime trees originally hail from the sub-tropical rainforests of northern NSW and Queensland. Their pearls – also known as vegan caviar – consist of citric acid, malic acid, lactic acid and glycolic acid. These are some of the same products that are used in cosmetic anti-ageing products to hydrate the skin.
The pulp of the tiny citrus fruit, called juice vesicles are beads that are filled with vitamin-C rich hydration potential tasting like a blend of lemon and lime juice. The beads hold their shape until you pierce them and they burst in your mouth, guaranteeing a juice explosion that’s sure to refresh.
Winsor says that ancient Indigenous wisdom knew that native finger limes were an excellent water source that could help conquer or prevent dehydration under the harsh Australian sun.
“Finger limes were often consumed for hydration purposes, especially if someone had to go on a journey and walk long distances,” she adds.
Healthy little fingers
"Like other citrus fruits, finger limes are an excellent source of vitamin C, which plays a role in healthy immunity, as well as collagen formation for healthy skin," explains Curtain. According to The Australian Super Food online, finger limes contain three times the vitamin C found in mandarins.
The nutritional content list continues, as the fruit features folate, potassium and polyphenols - an antioxidant that plays an important role in preventing or reversing cell damage and possibly preventing chronic disease.
"Finger limes also contain vitamin E, an antioxidant that protects our cells from damage, and fibre for healthy digestion."
"So while they are packed with nutrients, often we might only eat small quantities of them."
Although finger limes are a nutritional powerhouse, Curtain asks people to remember that the health benefits acquired are relative to the quantity consumed.
"Something to remember is that their tart, citrusy flavour means you probably wouldn't eat as big a serve of finger limes as you would other fruits," she says. "So while they are packed with nutrients, often we might only eat small quantities of them."
"That being said, their use in cooking as a burst of flavour, also means they can be used in place of less healthy ingredients like salt and sugar, so their benefits are wide-ranging."
Cooking with finger limes
Although there’s no doubt that finger limes are jam-packed with nutritional benefits, they aren’t as common as limes and lemons in stores, nor are they used as much in home kitchens throughout Australia.
The rainforest fruit is quite rare but supermarket outlets like (Woolworths and Harris Farm) do sell them at various locations. The fruit can also be ordered direct from Indigenous producers online. Or, if you’ve got a green thumb and the conditions are right, you can also grow your own finger lime tree.
Once you’ve sourced the ingredient, it’s time to utilise its citrus flavour in your cooking. Winsor says finger limes feature well in sweet and savoury dishes, and drinks.
“I make a native mocktail with finger lime pips and skin in it,” Winsor comments. “I use finger limes as a garnish over the top of cooked squid, and as the main ingredient in a citrus tart with finger limes and green ants. I also cook wild lime marmalade and use the whole fruit, including the skin.
“You can really use finger limes in so many different ways. I feel the flavours are a lot better than limes or lemons.
“Plus there are so many health benefits you can gain by eating finger limes. They are a native fruit and are absolutely worth eating.”
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