I am a chronic nail biter. I’ve been this way since the fourth grade, when I noticed a classmate biting her nails and thought it looked interesting enough to try it myself. When you’re a kid, a two-second thought can become a thirty-six year habit just like that. Now, the only way I can keep myself from biting my nails is by taking myself for a manicure every couple of weeks. (Nothing fancy. Just clean cuticles and a clear coat.) What’s the point of this story? If I didn’t bite my nails, I never would have learned to make salt-cured lemons, Vietnamese style, from the women who work at my favorite salon.
The process is simple, though the transmission was not. I was gabbing with Kim and Tina when we stumbled into a conversation about how they preserve lemons in salt. (I believe the conversation began with things to do when you have a head cold. They like to mix a bit of preserved lemon with hot water and a touch of sweetener to make a drink that makes you feel better.) Kim and Tina learned to make preserved lemons from their mothers, who had learned it from their mothers, in Vietnam. I feel so lucky that they wanted to teach me how to do it, too.
The thing is, our language gap is wide, and I understand approximately 25% of what they say to me. That never keeps us from talking nonstop, but there’s a lot of repetition and pantomime involved, which is particularly interesting when you’re trying to understand a recipe. Figuring out how to make Vietnamese Preserved Lemons involved a lot of hand gestures, much hilarity, and three trips back to the salon to clarify the steps — sometimes with Tina and me squatting down in the middle of the salon, acting out the process as though we were at home in her native country. It was an impressive production for nothing but lemons, water, and and a little bit of salt!
To give you an idea of how it went, here’s an attempt to reconstruct the first moments of our conversation, after they’d asked me to repeat back to them what they’d told me to do.
Me: Okay. First I get the lemons — how many lemons?
Tina: Doesn’t matter. How many you want?
Me: Let’s say a dozen.
Tina: Okay. Good.
Me: What kind of lemons?
Kim and Tina: Soft skin! Soft skin! Like this . . .
Kim runs into the back room and, from among the instruments and cuticle remover and whatnot, retrieves a single, beautiful Meyer lemon.
Me: Meyer lemons!
Kim and Tina: Meyer?
Me: Yes, we call this a Meyer lemon.
Kim and Tina: Meyer! Meyer! Okay.
Me: Then I take the lemons and put them outside for two days, in the sun.
Tina: Yes! On paper.
Me: Okay, on paper. On the ground?
Tina: No, not on ground! They burn.
Me: On a table?
Tina: No, need air.
There is much waving of hands around the lemon.
Me: How about a table with slats?
I show slats with my hands and make the air wave around the lemon again.
Tina: Yes! Yes!
Me: With the paper on top of the table?
Preserving the lemons takes three months total, so you can imagine how long this conversation went on. I had to suss out a number of details, like how much salt it takes to make water taste “a little more salty than the ocean,” which was the poetic instruction I was given. Here’s my interpretation of what I learned, which will yield one-dozen lemons.
Vietnamese Preserved Lemons: Chanh Muối
2 one-quart jars (regular mouth if possible, not wide mouth)
12 Meyer lemons
2 quarts water
2/3 cup pickling or Kosher salt
1. Set the lemons outside in the sun for two or three days. (Place them on a surface that allows some air to circulate around them — for example, on a slatted table covered with a single sheet of newspaper. Or perhaps in a basket, so long as you don’t stack the lemons on top of each other.) The reason for leaving them outside is to let some of the oil evaporate from the skin; you want to let them dry out a bit.
2. When you’re ready to preserve the lemons, boil the 2 quarts of water, add the salt, stir to dissolve, and let the salt water cool to room temperature. (One of my trips back to the salon was to let Tina taste my salt water, to be sure it was indeed a little more salty than the ocean.)
3. Sterilize your jars, and also let these cool before you fill them. (Truth? You probably don’t have to sterilize your jars at all. I’m just being a safety fuss.)
4. In a separate, large saucepot, boil some water and blanch the lemons by dunking them in this boiling water for about 30 seconds. Drain the lemons and discard the blanching water.
5. Using a sharp knife, quarter the lemons lengthwise without cutting them all the way through, so they fan out while remaining attached at one end. (See photo above. Kim and Tina leave their lemons whole, but for this first attempt, I decided to cut mine as I do for Moroccan-style preserved lemons. For those, I use a method similar to the one Marisa recently posted at Food In Jars. Cruising around the Internet showed me that Chanh Muối can be done either way — with whole or cut fruit.)
6. Pack the lemons into the jars and pour the cooled salt water over them, so that the lemons are completely covered. (Tina explained how her mother would break two chopsticks in half and make a little grille to keep the lemons from floating. I thought I might do that, too, but regular canning jars work perfectly here; the jars’ wide shoulders keep the lemons submerged.)
7. Leave the jars outside, where they will get sun, for three months. (If you’re not in a place that’s likely to get three months of sun, you might try them on your warmest windowsill. The salt will probably go right ahead and work its magic.)
When the lemons are done, the water should look, in Kim’s words, like a Margarita. And they should last for a long, long time. (Tina said her mother kept some for more than twenty years, and I do think I heard her correctly.) They also told me that the lemons don’t ever need to be refrigerated, as long as you always scoop them out with a clean spoon, but I know my own bad habits. I’m always sticking my fingers — manicured or not — into my jars and contaminating things. I’ll try to do better, but I’ll also keep my lemons in the fridge after I open the jars in a few months.
The most common use for these preserved lemons is Vietnamese Salty Lemonade. Salty lemonade? Yes! Yes! It’s also called Chanh Muối. (The drink and the preserved fruit go by the same name.) Mash up half a lemon (or as much as you want) then add water (still or fizzy) and sugar to taste. I think we’ll be drinking a lot of Chanh Muối this summer.
You can use this process for limes or kumquats, too! I think I’ll try whole kumquats next.