Market Watch: African Scarlet eggplant

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Long before the Wilshire Center farmers market officially opens at 11 a.m. on Fridays, customers throng the Kensee Farms stand to buy a very fresh and diverse array of Asian vegetables and greens. Chongshoua C. Lee, a Hmong grower who farms in Selma and Clovis with his wife, Vang Kensee, offers pristine okra, purple Chinese eggplant, long beans, yard-long snake gourds, both smooth and spiky bitter melons, round Indian and Thai eggplants in many hues, malabar spinach and ferociously hot Thai bird chiles.

Perhaps Lee's most unusual crop, at least in the United States, is the African scarlet eggplant, a round, ribbed fruit that ranges in size from a pea to the diameter of a nickel, and in color from dark green to bright red orange. It's native to tropical Africa, where the fruit, which is very bitter, is cooked in stews and used as medicine, and the leaves are commonly eaten as a vegetable.

It goes by many names, including garden egg, mock tomato, bitter berry, bitterball, and, most intriguingly, tomato of the Jews of Constantinople — supposedly because Jews expelled from Timbuktu in 1492 carried this crop with them to Constantinople. The species, Solanum aethiopicum, is in the same genus as other eggplants (along with potatoes and peppers), but differs from the somewhat similar pea eggplant of Southeast Asia, Solanum torvum, which is less bitter and sometimes eaten raw.

It is unclear how the scarlet eggplant got from Africa to Southeast Asia, although centuries ago there was considerable sea trade between China and East Africa. It became a staple of the Hmong, who planted it in home gardens when they emigrated to the San Joaquin Valley after the Vietnam War and eventually started selling it at farmers markets. In addition to Wilshire Center, Kensee sells at the Glendale (Gigi's at the Americana) market on Saturday and at Westlake Village on Sundays.

Finger limes: party trick to horticultural crop

In the last three years, finger limes have passed from novelty to become the new "It" fruit, and supply has greatly increased, though not as quickly as demand. Native to the Australian rain forest, these fruits resemble humble gherkins on the outside. Packed inside are round, glistening juice vesicles, which have a clean, refreshing lemon-lime flavor and crunchy texture, popping on the palate like citrus caviar.

The season has just begun, and Megan Shanley returned last Wednesday to the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market, where she sells containers of finger limes grown in Visalia, $10 for 5.5 ounces, about 28 fruits. In addition, Mud Creek Ranch has resumed selling small quantities of finger limes from a planting in Santa Paula, at the Santa Monica and Hollywood markets.

Although it's a neat party trick to cut a finger lime in half and squeeze out the pulp onto your tongue, the flavor is too tart to eat many by themselves. Most buyers — primarily restaurants and produce purveyors, along with a few of the fruit-curious general public — use the pulp as a garnish for seafood, cocktails and desserts.

Sam Baxter, sous-chef at Providence who bought finger limes from Shanley on Wednesday, said that he would sprinkle the pulp on kampachi sashimi, along with a tomato relish, olive oil, dashi and lime juice.

Shanley's father, James, has 600 bearing finger-lime trees, now 5 years old and 7 feet tall. He picked the first fruits a month ago and anticipates that the peak will be in the first two weeks of October and his last harvest will be in late January. Since his trees are older, this year's crop is two to three times as large as last year's, he says. The size of the individual fruits also has increased considerably: Though most are about 2 inches long, some are up to 5 inches long. The larger fruits have larger, less acidic juice vesicles.

The pulp can vary from the typical greenish-yellow to light or darker pink. Fruits with pinkish-brown rinds often have pigmented flesh, but fruits with the common green rind occasionally have colored flesh too. Flesh color does not appear to be linked to differences in flavor, but the taste does vary: Lemon-lime is most typical, but some fruits are more lemony or grapefruity.

At this point in the season, when the fruits are fresh and strong on the tree, they should keep for a week or so at room temperature before they start to shrivel. They keep for several weeks in a refrigerator at 40 degrees.

No official statistics are available for California finger lime cultivation, but James Shanley estimates that the state's farmers have planted 50 acres of the trees, of which 15 are bearing. Other large growers include Lisle Babcock of Deer Creek Heights Ranch in Porterville; Douglas Phillips of Phillips Farms in Visalia; and Jay Ruskey of Good Land Organics in Goleta.

Grow market in Manhattan Beach carries Shanley's finger limes, and Whole Foods stores in Southern California should have them starting this weekend. For those without direct access to farmers market or retail sources, Shanley and Ruskey offer finger limes by mail order, at premium prices.

Bag ban takes effect at Santa Monica markets

As of Thursday, Sept. 1, Santa Monica prohibits vendors at its four farmers markets from handing out single-use carry bags, the white plastic bags with handles that farmers previously provided for purchases. Because these bags can end up in the ocean, in treetops or in landfills, the city is encouraging shoppers to bring their own reusable bags and containers. The measure is part of a broader ban, affecting 1,875 retail establishments within the city.

Farmers still are allowed to distribute "roll bags," clear plastic bags with no handles. The market will make a limited supply of reusable carrying bags available at the information booth.

food@latimes.com

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