Hear the word “jujube,” and your thoughts might turn to the classic candy. But over the next several weeks at your local farmers markets, you’ll probably spot mounds of fresh fruit by the same name. The small fruit starts mildly sweet, similar to an apple and with a pit like an olive. But jujubes mature quickly; within days their green-yellow color slowly turns vivid shades of red and brown as they shrivel and the sugars concentrate into a caramel-like sweetness not unlike dates.
Jujubes, also known as Chinese red dates, have been prized for thousands of years in China and throughout much of the world, even if they’re not so familiar with many of us in Southern California.
“I had two customers last week, one each originally from Algeria and India,” says farmer Becky Terry. Terry, of Terry Ranch farm in Dinuba, Calif., has been growing — and researching — jujubes for the last decade. “These ladies, they each grew up with them.”
Although there are hundreds of varieties of jujubes, “As far as I know, there are nine varieties under cultivation at nurseries in California,” says Terry. She currently grows four varieties: Sugar Cane, Li, GA 866 and Sherwood. Terry currently has Li, a small round jujube and perhaps the most common in Southern California, and GA, a slightly larger, longer variety. Sherwood, a late-season jujube, should be ready to pick soon.
“At first. I didn’t know what they were,” says Terry. “My nurseryman simply gave me some plants and said, ‘Here, try them. You’ll like them.’”
If you plan to get some jujubes at the market, buy extra — the sweet, crunchy fruit makes a great snack, or you can add it to a cheese platter, or cut it up and toss with a salad. If you leave jujubes out for a few days until they mature, they will continue to sweeten.
Mixologist Matthew Biancaniello was recently at the Santa Monica farmers market with a bag of the fruit. He uses jujubes to make a compound butter at his Malibu restaurant Mon-Li, and also loves to add it to cocktails.
“At Ysabel [in West Hollywood], I just added a cocktail with jujube-infused gin, raspberry, sage and ginger,” he says. “Jujubes are great infused with gin or tequila.”
Jujubes are generally in season from late summer through early fall, though you can generally find dehydrated jujubes year-round in Asian markets. Terry Ranch farms can be found at select farmers markets in Santa Monica and Visalia.