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Visions of Plums
Deemed worthy of mention in the writings of Confucius, the juicy plum has been grown in China since ancient times

February is the month for plums. In Japan, the streets are awash in plum blossoms, while Americans celebrate National Plum Pudding Day on February 12th. Okay, it's true that modern plum puddings are more likely to contain of assortment of sultanas and currants than plums but you get the idea. The beginning of the spring season is the perfect time to examine the role of the plum in Chinese food and culture. 

According to several sources, the Chinese were probably the first to start cultivating plums.  Of course, these weren't Prunus domestica, the purplish-blue plums most commonly found in western supermarkets. Instead, they were the species Prunus salicina, also known as Japanese plums. Larger, sweeter, and juicier, Japanese plums are more pointed at the ends, and have a sort of "orangey-red" color. They have been available in the United States since the late nineteenth century. Another popular Old World plum is the Damson, Prunus institia, thought to have originated in Damascus.  

There are numerous tributes to the plum in Chinese culture. Confucius likens their beauty to a loved one in the following verse:

"The branches of the aspen plum
To and fro they sway
How can I not think of her? 
But home is far away," 

Lao-Tse, the famous Chinese philosopher, is thought to have been born under a plum tree, a lucky occurrence since the Chinese believe plums symbolize good fortune. As for the fruit itself, it rates a mention in Legends of Three Kingdoms, a Chinese historical novel. There is a passage where the famous warrior Cao Cao boasts of the time he persuaded his soldiers to move quickly out of a dangerous area by telling them that a tree laden with juicy plums lay straight ahead.

Today, plums are known and loved the world over. You'll find wild plums growing along the roadside in North America, while cherry plums are popular in Europe. Not surprisingly for such a popular fruit, the plum has often been extolled in writing. Keats praised their sweetness, while Little Jack Horner pulled one out of his pie in the famous nursery rhyme. And who can forget those dancing Sugar Plum Fairies in "The Nutcracker Ballet?" The plum has even made its way into everyday language: we use the expression "plum good" to describe something that is high in quality.   

In Hawaii you can snack on "plum crackseed" - preserved plum seeds seasoned with licorice, sugar, and salt. According to Kathy Durham, former About Guide to Hawaii, the Chinese introduced the Hawaiians to preserved seeds when they immigrated to Hawaii over one-hundred years ago. She adds that crackseed is a local nickname that "comes from biting on the seed to crack it open, blending the flavors of the seed (usually bitter) with the flavors of the fruit and other ingredients."  

You can also find preserved seeds at Asian stores. I've never tried the plum, but preserved watermelon seeds have a unique combination of sweet and sour that lingers in your mouth long after the seeds are gone.

Here is a good basic recipe for plum sauce with sweet chili sauce from the Eating Richly blog.