18 July 2010

Buddha’s Hand – The Fruit that Prays

The Buddha’s Hand fruit looks, to all intents and purposes, as if it could have been grown in a certain town called Springfield.  As well as a three eyed fish, it would come as no surprise to see the Simpson siblings discover this peculiar fruit, grown as a result of contamination from Mr Burns’ nuclear power plant.  However, this fruit is for real.

Unsurprisingly, Westerners often react to the plant by pointing out it looks like the hand of Freddy Krueger, not knowing that it was named after a hand millennia before.  This weird citron grows on small shrubs and trees and has a thick peel.  There is hardly any flesh within the fruit – sometimes none at all.  Furthermore it has no juice and often has no seeds either.  So what on earth is the use of this fruit? 

Smell.  It has a lovely smell – and you might be forgiven for thinking that this would be akin to the aroma of lemons.  However, it has a delicious fragrance more like violets than anything else and is used to perfume rooms.  It is also used to keep clothing smelling lovely and fresh. You might have to look twice, when it is displayed in the markeplaces of Asia - you could think it was a display of bananas (albeit strange ones) out of the corner of your eye.

The peel is often candied.  This is a rather involved process but worth it as the resulting succade is delicious.  The fruit is sliced and depulped.  Then it is placed in to salt water to ferment for forty days with the brine replaced a few times during the process.  After that it is put in to an even more formidable brine solution for storage.  After it has been de-salted and boiled to soften up the peel it is then placed in to a sugar solution.  The result – candied Hand! The above picture, however, shows the Buddha's hand being infused in vodka.

The candying process might put you off, so instead it can also be used simply, just for its zest, produced by scraping or peeling its outer skin.  With the Buddha’s Hand, you can cut off its fingers, slice it length ways and use it in salad or on fish dishes.

The plant is thought to come from China or the North East of India and it does grow best in temperate conditions.  As it is sensitive to extremes such as heat and frost, inland valleys are the best place for propagation and, indeed, the tree can be found as far afield as the US.

In China the fruit is often carried in the hand or simply placed on a table in the home to bring those who live their good luck, happiness and long life.  Its Chinese name, fo-shou, means exactly that when it is written alongside other characters. As well as culinary and household use the fruit, before maturity, is often prescribed as a tonic.

Above is an example of Chinese symbols of good fortune.  The boy reposes on a banaa leaf and his head is resting on a Buddha's hand fruit.  The fruit has appeared in Chinese art for over a thousand years.  As well as the Buddha fruit the boy holds a red bat (red is the Chinese luck color) and he plays with a crane, a pomegranite at his feet.  These are all symbols of longevity, prosperity and fecundity - particularly when it comes to having sons.

Likewise in Japan, the bushukan as it is known there bestows good luck on to the household where it is kept.  It is often given as a New Year gift, places upon rice cakes or used instead of a floral display in the toko alcove of the house.  This is a traditional form of alcove where items with religious meaning are displayed (as well as objects of artistic merit). The shrub of the fruit is also popular in its bonsai form.

As the name suggests, the fruit is also popular as an offering in Buddhism.  Traditionally, it is said that Buddha prefers the fingers to resemble a praying hand.  When you look at traditional Buddhist dance you can also see the similarity between that and the fruit.  From the sublime, however, to the - well, you make up your mind.  As parents the world over have said for millennia, there always has to be one...

Finally, before someone points it out, the answer is yes.  We have noticed that there is a certain similarity between the Buddha’s Hand fruit and that cosmic entity, Cthulhu.

Perhaps HP Lovecraft in his travels noticed the fruit on his travels and decided that it was something he could adapt.  Or perhaps not.

Cthulhu Image Credit