close up photo of a bowl of preserved lemons and oranges

Some thoughts on preserved lemons

Tucked at the bottom shelf of my mid-sized fridge, occupying precious real estate, is a four-liter tub of preserved lemons. When filled to the brim with its precious cargo, the tub, made of thick clear glass, becomes translucent yellow. It is quite heavy and I whisper a prayer every time I take it out of the fridge. I am alert to anything that might cause a slip or a stumble as I make the short trip to the kitchen counter where I set it ever so gently.

Life giving lemons

As a lover of all things lemony, I had been on the hunt for this North African preserved condiment. In the Mediterranean and Middle East it’s known for its ability to enrich beans, my preferred vegan protein source, with aromatic depth and lemony, salty complexity. The price of a small jar in an upscale deli in Makati stopped me in my tracks. There I resolved to learn to make it myself. But virtually all lemons I could find in the supermarkets came with a wax coating, and were grown with pesticides–two things you don’t want when what you will consume is the rind.  

Then in 2018 at a farmers’ training workshop in Benguet where I taught fermentation I met one who grew organic lemons. I bought seven kilos of freshly picked, fragrant sunshine. Back home I made my first batch of preserved lemons, thrilled at how easy it actually was. 

Wash and dry the lemons. Slice each one into quarters, but leave the bottoms intact. 

Sprinkle the insides of each lemon with salt. Pack into a clean jar. Repeat with the remaining lemons. 

Sprinkle each layer of lemons with salt. Press the lemons down so that they release juice. 

Top up with more lemon juice and keep everything submerged. 

Leave in a cool dark place for at least a month. Shake daily. 

Lifegiving lessons

The salt-curing technique is applicable to a lot of citruses, which is why I also immediately tried it on a sour orange variety grown in the Mountain Province and the ubiquitous calamansi. Over the last four years I have been replenishing my supply of preserved citruses when the citrus season comes in Nueva Ecija and the Cordillera, grateful that I am able to enjoy concentrated citrusy goodness even when their season ends. 

Preserved sour oranges (left) from Bauko, Mountain Province, and preserved lemons from Tublay, Benguet

And I guess this is why I love fermentation.

We preserve food knowing what lies ahead may be a period of dearth. In the city this is all too easy to forget. Our worldviews, habits, and preferences conditioned by the allure of supermarket shelves stocked to the brim year round, of cheap and fast unli rice and eat-all-you-can buffets, all the while making invisible the cost of such 24/7 availability and excess on our health, our oceans, our forests, our communities. 

Calamansi. Illustration by Mabel David-Pilar.

To me fermentation offers us a way to not take nature’s provision lightly, especially in this time of climate emergency.

Fermenting regularly, being alert to what is available and when, we are reminded that seasons of plenty come with shadows. We cannot help but be grateful for what is ample, and we begin to see the periods of lying fallow not as fearsome events to be avoided at all costs, but one that helps life regulate and regenerate. 

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