It wouldn’t bode well for marketing, but “Medusa’s head” would be just as fitting of a name for this ball of freakish tentacles.
Despite the out of this world appearance, it’s a totally natural and non-GMO fruit that offers creative uses for culinary, and perhaps some health benefits to boot.
What is Buddha’s hand?
Buddha’s hand is natural variation of the regular citron (Citrus medica). Historians believe the fingered variety was brought to China by way of India thanks to traveling Buddhists and hence, the origin of its name. Also known as fingered citron, this yellow fruit splits in segments that look like fingers.
The scientific name for it is Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis. It’s a small tree, ranging from 8 to 15 feet in height, while the dwarf variety is just 5 feet. With a USDA hardiness zone requirement of 10 to 11 to grow successfully, the Buddha’s hand tree is not frost tolerant. Temperatures can’t drop below 40°F (4.4°C).
Its exact history is a bit murky, though evidence points to it making its way to the Far East sometime after the 4th century AD. Following the collapse of the famous Tang dynasty, historical records from the empire of Min (909 to 945 AD) confirm it was in existence and considered to be an important fruit.
In Traditional Chinese medicine and folklore, it is believed to symbolize happiness, longevity, and wealth. Giving a potted Buddha’s hand tree as a gift for Chinese New Year is believed to bring good fortune to the recipient. It was and still is used as a sacrificial offering at their temples.
In fact, it is such a prized object there, the plant gets depicted in jade, ivory, and wood carvings.
The Japanese Buddhist monk, Myoan Eisai, is believed to be responsible for bringing the tea plant from China to his homeland, where the art of how to make matcha would be born. No one knows who brought the citron Buddha hand to Japan, but it has also been held in high esteem there for centuries. They call it bushukan and it’s popular for their New Years, too.
Sources: Food in China: A Cultural and Historical Inquiry (1) (2)
What does it taste like?
Buddha’s hand fruit is edible. The best way to describe its flavor is that of a lemon peel, but without any sourness or bitterness. There is a hint of sweetness, though it’s subtle. With no flesh, pulp, or seeds inside, the fingered citron is practically all rind. There’s no juice or moisture as you experience with most fruits.
Even though the taste is pleasant, the texture is not. It’s like chewing raw eggplant, minus the bitterness. That’s why it’s usually used in recipes rather than eaten as a raw, whole fruit.
What does it smell like?
The smell of fresh Buddha’s hand is lemony and floral. Everyone seems to love it, men included. Setting a whole fruit on the kitchen counter or as a decorative ornament in a room will keep that area smelling like lemon and lavender for up to two weeks’ time.
Many uses of the fruit are based on its pleasant fragrance.
One of which is using it as a table centerpiece, preferably with a few leaves still attached. It serves as both a decorative ornament and an air freshener.
A way to enjoy the fragrance without the fruit is to use Buddha’s hand essential oil. It can be made by steam distilling fruit and extracting the volatile oils. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to buy this from Doterra, Plant Therapy and the like. It’s not made commercially by those brands nor others.
The next best thing will be oils and fragrances made using citron fruit. After all, both are the same Citrus medica species, albeit different strains.
There is an excellent smelling body lotion from Crabtree & Evelyn that’s scented with citron, honey, and coriander. You can get it on Amazon.
As with many rare fruits and vegetables, you won’t find an entry for it among the 225,000 foods in the USDA National Nutrient Database.
Whether it’s scientific literature or that of major suppliers like Frieda’s, no one has published the complete nutritional information for Buddha’s hand. Nor is a company like Frieda’s obligated to do so, because there’s a reporting loophole for produce.
Since the facts haven’t been published for Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis, the best nutritional guidance comes from Citrus medica (regular citron fruit). It doesn’t have fingers but it’s makeup is comparable.
Based on that, these would be the expected nutrition facts for Buddha’s hand citron.
|Buddha’s Hand Nutrition Facts|
|Serving Size: 100 g (about 3.5 ounces)|
|% Daily Value*||% Daily Value|
|Total Fat 0.3 g||0%||Vitamin A 0.01 mg||<1%|
|Saturated Fat 0 g||0%||Thiamine (B1) 0.5 mg||33%|
|Trans Fat 0 g||Riboflavin (B2) 0.3 mg||23%|
|Sodium 0mg||Niacin (B3) 0.13 mg||<1%|
|Total Carbs. 9.3 g||3%||Vitamin C 368 mg||409%|
|Fiber 4 g||14%||Calcium 36 mg||3.6%|
|Total Sugars||2.5g||Phosphorus 16mg||1.6%|
|Protein 1.1 g||Iron 0.55mg||3%|
|*Percent Daily Values (DV) are based on a 2,000 calorie diet|
Whether it’s fingered citron or a more regular-looking variety, since they’re basically thick rinds without flesh, the calorie count and grams of sugar will be low, while their fiber content is high.
The 29 calories for a 3.5 oz. fruit will come with around 9g of carbs but very little sugar (fructose).
Because not even citrons are in the USDA database, these facts have to be sourced from other sources. (3) (4)
In Traditional Chinese medicine, dried Buddha’s hand is called Fo Shou or its full pharmaceutical name, Fructus Citri Sarcodactylis.
According to their beliefs, it helps regulate Qi (vital energy) and does so in the liver, lungs, stomach, and spleen. They say it helps to dissolve phlegm and relieve coughing. Fo Shou tea and tinctures are the way it’s typically used in TCM. (5)
In western medicine and science, very little has been published on this plant. It’s not proven to work for anything. These are the health benefits of Buddha hand which have some preliminary research on them:
Scientists in Taiwan have found that when cultured cells were exposed to a water-based Buddha’s hand extract, there was higher expression in fibroblast growth factor (FGF-2). This promoted the growth of Schwann cells, which make the sheath surrounding neuronal axons. The more extract used, the higher the FGF-2 production they saw. (6)
Lower blood sugar
This has never been studied in humans, but researchers have reported that the essential oils in Buddha’s hand appeared to have beneficial effects on blood glucose levels in rats. The main chemical constituents inside the essential oil are:
- 24% d-limonene
- 71% gamma-terpenene
- 40% alpha-pinene
- 88% beta-pinene
While none of these are unique compounds, the profiles of common essential oils don’t have them in these same percentages. (7)
South Koreans report that the fruit’s essential oil suppressed inflammation through several mechanisms.
When cultured cells were treated with it, the expression of several enzymatic reactions that cause inflammation were favorably influenced:
- prostaglandin E2 (PGE2)
- cyclooxygenase 2 (COX-2)
- tumor necrosis factor-a (TNF-a)
- interleukin (IL)-1ß
Some of these anti-inflammatory effects are shared with the capsaicin content in hot sauce. (8)
The Chinese report that the stem and bark extracts also reduce inflammation in lab tests. (9)
Alleviating lump in throat
Globus pharyngis is the medical term for the constant feeling of having a lump in your throat. It’s the feeling you get from a pill or phlegm that’s stuck there. Often times though, nothing is stuck at all, as it’s really just the nerves there giving a false signal.
At Yangzhou University in China, 46 patients were treated with the TCM remedy Fo Shou made from the fruit. The dosage was taken 3 times per day and found to be more effective at alleviating this side effect versus the sore-throat treatment it was pitted against. (10)
How to eat Buddha’s hand
The easiest way to eat Buddha’s hand is to cut it in half as you would a lemon. The thick yellow skin is very nutritious, though eating high amounts may give you a stomach ache. That’s why if you’re eating it raw, you only want small amounts of the skin remaining given how fibrous it is.
Cutting it in very thin slices, like an onion, is a good way to not be overwhelmed by the dull and chewy texture. It also minimizes the amount of yellow rind you are consuming per serving.
If you want to remove the yellow rind entirely, then cutting it into chunks like you would butternut squash is the best way to accomplish that. You can’t skin it like a cucumber or carrot given it’s odd shape.
Even though the flavor of fingered citron is enjoyable – like a lemon without sourness – it’s not a fruit you will want to eat a bowl of. The best use for it is as a presentation piece when you want to wow the people you are serving.
Rather than cutting lengthwise, slicing it like starfruit so you can see the shape will preserve some of its exotic appearance.
The entire fruit of Buddha’s hand can be grated, much like carrots. These shavings can be used to garnish desserts and as a substitute for any recipe that incorporates lemon zest.
Storing the fruit
How to store Buddha’s hand is the same as lemons. If you haven’t cut them yet, then they can be stored at room temperature as long as they are kept away from sources of heat, such as your furnace vent and stove. Don’t store on top of the fridge, because that surface gets hot too.
Refrigerating the fruit will prolong its freshness, however the cold may change the flavor slightly, especially if it’s stored for several days or longer. Remember this tree normally grows in a climate that never drops below 40°F and your refrigerator is a couple degrees cooler than that.
Once it has been cut, refrigeration will be required to avoid the growth of bacteria. Keep it in a closed container to avoid it drying out.
Unlike iceberg lettuce or apples, there is limited water content to begin with, which means that freezing Buddha’s hand is an option for storage. Rather than freeze the whole fruit, your best bet is to first slice, dice, or grate it into the pieces you want and then put those in Ziploc freezer bags.
What to do with Buddha’s hand
1. Use as an edible novelty for parties
Because it’s so expensive, it’s kind of wasteful to use it in a manner that hides its unique appearance. If that’s happening, using plain citron fruit will be cheaper and similar for taste, smell, and the nutrition facts.
This is why however you choose to use it, you will want to showcase its appearance in the process.
Looking like a gnarled hand naturally lends itself to Halloween parties. Or a fun birthday bash. Keep one of them intact, with another sliced into small pieces on the same platter. Preferably sliced like a starfruit, so the novel shape is reiterated.
2. Cook with vegetables
Cooking with Buddha’s hand fruit works best in savory dishes. It adds a lemony zest flavor and the sautéing will make the texture much more palatable, similar to the transformation of eggplant when it’s cooked. Though unlike eggplant, there’s no prep work needed to remove bitterness.
Adding fingered citron to steamed tofu, rice, fish, and pasta are all possibilities. Get creative because any recipe that you think will work with lemon zest will work with Buddha’s hand.
3. Make an herbal tea
With so little liquid inside, you can’t juice it. Buddha hand fruit tea is the only viable way to drink it. The recipe calls for boiling the fruit in water for 10-20 minutes and then screening out the parts so you are left with just the lemon flavored water.
The tea is particularly useful for the odds and ends pieces you have leftover from something else. It’s a way to not waste any of this expensive fruit.
4. Boil for jam and marmalade
It’s a lot of work, but if you’re into making homemade jams and fruit preserves, this is an excellent choice – either by itself or mixed with other fruits.
Before you experiment with a Buddha’s hand recipe for marmalade, it would probably be a good idea to know what it tastes like. After all, since this fruit costs around $10 (or more) a piece, you may be spending $100 just on this one ingredient to make a couple jars!
No one sells marmalade that uses it but to get an idea for what it would taste like, buy some citron marmalade. We have yet to see it for sale at stores in the United States or Canada, though you can pick up a jar on Amazon.
5. Infusion for vodka and cocktails
Absolut Citron has been one of the brand’s bestsellers since its introduction in the 80’s. The official description says “citrus flavor” so who knows if there’s even citron fruit inside. It may be just lemons.
No one sells it but you could make some Buddha’s hand vodka yourself. Dice up the fruit and put it in a sealed Fido jar with an unflavored vodka of your choosing. Store it in the fridge for 7 days and then strain the solids. The recipe is that simple.
Cocktails can be made with it too. Rather than a wedge of a lemon or lime, a piece of fingered citron will certainly be the conversation starter.
6. Candied fruit
What is candied Buddha’s hand? It may be the most popular way this fruit is eaten.
- Cut one large fruit into small chunks or strips.
- In a medium pot, combine with ½ cup of sugar and 1 cup of water.
- Simmer for 30 minutes.
- Strain excess liquid and lay pieces on parchment paper to dry.
- For best presentation, roll in powdered sugar prior to serving.
If you’re using sugar of any kind, you can’t kid yourself and say that candied Buddha’s hand is healthy. Though aeast it packs a fair amount of fiber. It’s certainly not any worse for you than most other varieties of dried fruit. Dried cranberries and cherries you buy at the store always have added sugar, unfortunately.
If you want to make a fingered citron candy that’s actually healthy, instead of using sugar in the recipe try monk fruit.
7. Air freshener
Who says you have to eat it on day one? Before embarking on the edible uses for Buddha’s hand, enjoy its natural perfume.
In China, a Buddha’s hand flower arrangement makes use of it for both aesthetics and scent. In your house, it could be something as simple as having a place in your fruit bowl.
Where to buy
It’s one of the hardest fruits to find for sale, at least in societies dominated by Western culture, such as the US and UK. In both of these countries, you may be able to find Buddha’s hand at a Chinese supermarket which carries exotic fruits.
In the US you really only encounter these markets in places like Southern California (e.g. 99 Ranch Market) and New York City (H Mart). There are others though, including in mid-sized cities that have a significant Chinese or Japanese population.
In London, try Loon Fung supermarket.
Whole Foods has been known to carry finger citron, though we have yet to see it at their Los Angeles locations.
Surprisingly when in-season, it’s sold at Ralph’s, which is the California arm of Kroger.
When is Buddha’s hand in season? Assuming it’s being grown in the northern hemisphere, the season will be October through January. Availability outside of those months will be limited to greenhouse growers and exports from the southern hemisphere, like Australia and New Zealand.
The cost to buy a Buddha’s hand fruit in the US, UK, and even China is quite expensive relative to common fruits and vegetables. At the Ralph’s in Manhattan Beach, CA the price is $10 per fruit, though most places sell by the pound. If by quantity, buy the biggest on the shelf!
Before you go driving around town on a wild goose chase to find them, we recommend calling the store ahead of time that you think might have it.
The PLU for Buddha’s hand is 4391. That’s for conventionally grown.
Frieda’s seems to be the biggest supplier in the US. With the exception of an independent grower at a local farmer’s market, no one is selling organic.
Dried Buddha hand should be available at TCM shops under the name Fo Shou (佛手).
How to grow
Since the fresh fruit is so hard to find for sale, perhaps you would prefer a tree in your backyard!
Growing requires zone 10 to 11, with the latter really being the more accurate representation. Even for zone 10 you are limited to Hawaii and the southernmost parts of California, Texas, and Florida.
That’s one of the reason you never see Buddha’s hand fruit seeds for sale at your local nursery. Another reason is that this strain of citron has been bred to produce virtually seedless fruit.
It’s a myth to say the seeds don’t exist at all, but they’re hard to obtain from the fresh fruit itself. This is why cuttings are better and ideally, a seedling is best.
Where to buy Buddha’s hand tree? Mail-order may be your only option.
One Green World sells a dwarf tree that begins bearing fruit 1-2 years after planting and its mature height is just 3-5 feet. They even market it for zone 9 growing. The bad news is they say “We can’t ship citrus to California, Arizona, and Florida” due to the laws.
Whether dwarf or regular, if you get your hands on one of these fingered citron strains, make sure you plant the tree or seed in full sunlight and water it regularly, as you would a lemon tree.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.