Comparison of common citrus fruits in Korea

Despite the cold of winter, South Korean markets constantly offer edibles. Apart from beans, grains and other dry foods, there is also some fresh produce. The cold temperatures allow the harvest of seafood and seaweed, which would easily spoil in the summer. Winter vegetables such as spinach, cabbage and root vegetables (e.g. radish, sweet potatoes, potatoes, burdock, onions) and fruits that store well are available now. Yet, there seems to be only one kind of fruit which is naturally in season now: Citrus fruit.

What kinds of citrus fruit do you know? And how do you distinguish citrus fruits?

5 different kinds of mandarins common in Korea.

Lemons are yellow. 🍋🟡 Limes are green. 🍋🟢 Oranges are orange. 🍊🟠

But what about mandarin oranges, clementines and tangerines? 🍊🍊🍊

How do you distinguish those?

Keeping track of all those citrus fruits can be confusing. And since breeding efforts and world-wide trade increase, citrus fruits are ever diversifying! In Korea, you can find a large variety of citrus fruits, and some of them are even grown locally! 🇰🇷🍊 The climate in the southern provinces and particularly on Jeju Island (제주도) is optimal for growing certain citrus fruits! While common citrus fruits like grapefruits, oranges, lemons and limes are imported, several kinds of mandarin oranges and other small citrus fruits are produced inside South Korea. Here’s a short introduction to edible citrus fruits in contemporary Korea!

Oranges and Cheonhyehyang sold at a supermarket. March 2021.

What is the difference between mandarins in Korea? How do you distinguish mandarin oranges?

What are the differences between tangerines, mandarins, mandarin oranges and clementines? ❔🤔❓ Their names are often used interchangeably in English language, and on first sight, they are also easily confused… [They are all orange, round and small!] Botanically, however, they are different individuals from the family of citrus fruits! While mandarins (also “mandarines”) and mandarin oranges refer essentially to the same fruit, clementines and tangerines grow on other kinds of citrus trees! Still, clementines and tangerines can be considered as varieties of mandarin oranges. The scientific name that is generally applied to mandarins is Citrus reticulata, but there are numerous varieties and hybrids, of which some have a separate species name. In fact, the taxonomy of citrus fruit is a much debated topic. [Note that many scientific names for citrus fruits are controversial!]

Likewise, there are several varieties of mandarin oranges in Korea and they all have individual names: Gyul, Hallabong, Cheonhyehyang, Redeuhyang and Hwanggeumhyang are the most common ones! To bring some clarity into the diverse citrus fruits available in Korea, you can find individual descriptions of certain cultivars here. ❕🧐❗️ Make sure you check out the videos, which show the process of peeling certain types of mandarin oranges, and you will quickly spot differences in shape, size, color, skin, texture and other characteristics! 🎦 The videos are played at double speed! ⏩ [Some citrus fruits are quite annoying to peel…😤]

In addition to that, there’s a brief overview of those five popular varieties of mandarin oranges at the bottom of this post! 👇👇👇

🟠 Regular mandarins, mandarin oranges

Probably best known are those mandarin oranges which are referred to as gyul (귤), gamgyul (감귤) or milgam (밀감). During the season, which is almost all winter, they are one of the least expensive fruit in South Korea!

By the way, the syllable gam here has nothing to do with gam (감) as the Korean name for persimmons! It is simply the Korean pronunciation of the character 柑 which means “mandarin orange”.* The alternative name milgam (밀감) is based on the characters 蜜柑 and accordingly translates to “honey mandarin” (or “sweet mandarin”). Gyul (귤), on the other hand, originates from the character 橘 for “tangerine / mandarin”.** The name gamgyul is a combination of both characters 柑橘.

A popular variety in Korea is the onju gyul (온주귤 溫州橘), which is also known as Satsuma mandarin in the West and may be scientifically referred to as Citrus unshiu. Despite the Japanese name, Satsumas’ origin is actually believed to be in China and it is named after its region Wenzhou (溫州). Nevertheless, this mandarin variety has been known in Korea for many centuries as indicated in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, in which a report from the year 1423 describes that Joseon received 1000 onju gyul along with other gifts from Japan.***

When gyul are labeled as “ha-useu gyul” (하우스귤), it means that the mandarins (gyul 귤) have been cultivated inside a green house (ha-useu 하우스) instead of an outdoor farm. The warm climate on Jeju Island does allow growing citrus trees outdoors, but in order to supply the market with fresh fruits for a longer period of the year, some farmers also specialize in greenhouse farming.

Although categorized by sizes S (small) to L (large), these mandarin oranges are always smaller than a tennis ball. 🎾 Their shape is oblate and thus flatter than oranges. When properly ripe, the outside of mandarins is yellow-orange, but they are also edible and on sale when the peel is greenish. Typically, this regular mandarin is easy to peel, and the individual segments can be separated easily as well. The skin or membrane between each segment is rather fibrous and durable, so one needs to chew it properly. Without the white membrane, the pulp is dense and tender. Its flavor varies by individual fruit – some mandarins are sweet, some are more sour!

🟠 Hallabong 한라봉

Hallabong (한라봉) is supposedly the Korean name of the cultivar Shiranuhi (シラヌヒ 不知火) or Dekopon (デコポン), which was developed in Japan in 1972. The Korean variety Hallabong, however, looks more coarse and uneven.

Hallabong is spherical, almost as round as an orange, but it has a characteristic bump on top. Because of that protruding bump, Hallabong is named after the volcano Hallasan (한라산) on Jeju Island, which is the highest mountain of South Korea and whose peak resembles the shape of Hallabong. 🌋 Besides that obvious identifying feature, the skin of Hallabong is a bright yellow-orange making it lighter than most mandarin oranges. Its size ranges from a baseball to as large as a grown man’s fist. ⚾️✊ Peeling Hallabong is easy and also the inner segments can be separated easily. The segments containing the fruit’s flesh have a tougher texture, similar to the chewiness of regular mandarins. Its pulp tastes refreshingly tart and slightly sweet, which is comparable to some orange cultivars.

🟠 Cheonhyehyang 천혜향

This variety of citrus fruit has also been introduced from Japan, where it’s called Setoka (せとか). The Korean name Cheonhyehyang (천혜향 天惠香) means something like “Perfume from Heaven”, and indicates that this fruit is particularly fragrant. When peeling the fruit, the peel releases a sweet scent that is perceived as pleasant and fresh. Normally, it is also larger than regular mandarins and can grow up to fist sized. ✊ Besides, it distinguishes itself from other oblate mandarin oranges because of its smooth and glossy skin, which is relatively thin and tightly attached to the flesh. While the outside of the skin is normally yellow-orange, the underside of the skin is white-orange, contrary to many other mandarin varieties which are white-yellow. The membrane between the segments is very thin as well, which may make it difficult to divide the individual segments without crushing them. The orange-colored pulp is dense, yet its texture is soft and very juicy. This flesh generally tastes sweet with a subtle sour note, although some lower quality Cheonhyehyang may develop a bitter flavor as well.

🟠 Redeuhyang 레드향

Different to Cheonhyehyang, the variety of mandarin orange that’s called Redeuhyang (레드향 Red香) has an uneven and less glossy skin, and as the name “Red Perfume” implies, its color exhibits a red-orange tone. Its fragrance is also more subtle, yet sweet and fruity. It actually looks like a very large, more than fist-sized mandarin from the outside! ✊ It has an oblate, rather flat shape, and the thick skin can be peeled off easily. However, the flesh of Redeuhyang reveals itself as much softer and looser than regular mandarins! The membrane between the individual segments is so soft that the inner pulp bursts out upon opening the fruit. Those juice vesicles are loose and rather large, and give the flesh a pearl-like mouthfeel. Their taste is very sweet, yet the texture is very soft and juicy.

🟠 Hwanggeumhyang 황금향

The name Hwanggeumhyang (황금향 黃金香) derives from “Golden Perfume” and, like the other mandarin oranges above, this one also has a distinct smell to it. Regarding the shape, it is almost as spherical and large as a tennis ball and thereby much rounder than above mentioned varieties. 🎾 Peeling this fruit without harming the flesh is difficult, because the skin is soft and the membranes between the individual segments are also very thin. While the zest outside is dark orange, the fruit inside is bright yellow-orange. [Perhaps this is the reason, why it’s called “Golden Perfume”.] The flesh lies inside segments which are closely attached to each other and densely packed with pulp. The juice vesicles are likewise very soft as well as very juicy, and they have a subtle sweet flavor with almost no acidity.

Other Citrus Fruit in Korea

🟢 Green mandarin oranges 풋귤 / 청귤 / 초록귤 / 영귤

Putgyul (풋귤), cheong-gyul (청귤) as well as chorok-gyul (초록귤) all translate to “green mandarin” and refer to unripe fruits that are still green, very sour yet edible. They are, however, different cultivars of mandarin oranges! Yeonggyul (영귤 瀛橘), for example, is a particular variety known as Sudachi (from Japanese すだち 酢橘). Contrary to regular green mandarins, the flesh inside Sudachi is not orange but light green.

In South Korea’ s contemporary food culture, green mandarins as well as Sudachi are mostly preserved in sugar and then mixed with hot water or carbonated water to make sweet tea or lemonade, respectively. Accordingly, the fruits are used as a flavoring component because of their specific aroma instead of eating the flesh.

🟠 Kumquat 낑깡 / 금귤

The citrus fruit known as kumquat (Citrus japonica) is easily identified, because it is a very small citrus fruit. There are, however, several cultivars of kumquat worldwide! The variety prevalent in South Korea seems to belong to the “round kumquat” and it is either called Kking-kkang (낑깡) or Geumgyul (금귤 金橘). While Kking-kkang is based on “kinkan“, which is the Japanese pronunciation of 金柑, Geumgyul is the Korean reading of 金橘, both sets of Chinese characters translate to “golden mandarin”. As the name suggests, the color of kumquats is a warm, golden-yellow.

Kumquats next to a banana.

In Korea, the kumquat’s size is no larger than a table tennis ball! 🏓 But while the shape of most kumquats is often compared to that of olives or eggs (which both are elliptic), the Korean kumquat is less oval and almost as round as a ball! Also, its taste is sweeter and less sour than other kumquat cultivars. There is no need to peel it, and there is hardly any flesh inside. Thus it is normally consumed raw by eating it whole together with the soft skin. Yet, the fruit contains many seeds which taste bitter, so it is suggested to remove the seeds before biting on them.

🟡 Yuja 유자

Another citrus fruit that is significant in all East Asian countries is Citrus junos: It’s called Yuja (유자 柚子) in Korean and the equivalent of yuzu (ユズ) in Japan and xiāngchéng (香橙) in China. The plant grows naturally in the south of the Korean peninsula (including but not limited to Jeju Island), while regions famous for cultivating Yuja are located in Jeolla Province (전라도) and South Gyeongsang Province (경상남도). There, Yuja is harvested from mid-October to November – much earlier than the other citrus fruits mentioned here. Fresh Yuja does not store very long, so it is not available outside the season. [Photos of the fresh fruit will be added upon opportunity…]

Yuja is a round, ball-shaped fruit which is as large as a tennis ball or a baseball. ⚾️ The skin is yellow, a tone slightly darker than lemons, and its surface is uneven and bumpy. Yuja is valued for its skin or rather zest because it is very fragrant! 👃🌼 The fruit’s flesh inside, on the other hand, tastes extremely sour and contains many seeds, and is thus normally not consumed on its own.

In order to enjoy Yuja, Koreans normally combine the zest (sometimes adding the deseeded pulp) with sugar and/or honey to make Yuja cheong (유자청). The resulting jam-like liquid is mixed with water to make sweet tea (Yuja cha 유자차) or lemonade, or it is added to dressings used for example in salads. There is even a flavor of soju (소주), typical Korean liquor, that is aromatized with Yuja! 🍶 [No guarantee that the soju contains actual Yuja!]

Apart from its culinary uses, Yuja is also put inside one’s home where it serves as a kind of natural diffuser! 🏠

Cultural aspects of citrus fruits in Korea

The origin of most citrus fruits is located in Asia, and their history in Korea is long and rich. For instance, Yuja as well as Gyul mandarins are mentioned more than 400 times in the Annals of Joseon Dynasty and they can be traced back to records from the beginning of the dynasty in the late 14th century.**** Since it was possible to grow mandarin oranges only in distant regions such as the island Jejudo, they were rare and treasured. Gyul were presented to the royal court and given as special gifts in the Korean kingdom. Even though citrus fruits are more easily available nowadays, certain varieties are still considered as valuable in contemporary South Korea. Particularly fruits produced inside Korea as well as fruits that are exceptionally large are most expensive. This is also visible during the holidays, when gift boxes consisting of nothing but a few, individually wrapped mandarin oranges are on sale. [Note the prices! 👇]

Cheonhyehyang juice in Hareubang-shaped (하르방) bottles.

Today, most mandarin oranges are still grown on Jeju Island because of its subtropical climate (warmest weather of Korea!). Souvenirs from Jejudo often include desserts or snacks flavored with mandarin oranges, or feature citrus in some other way. 🏝🍊 As you might know, the scent of citrus fruits AND flowers can be enticing, and both are used also in the fragrance industry. 👃

Another cultural aspect – in fact one from the vegan community of South Korea – is that some people say 귤팁 (gyul tip), literally “mandarin tip”, to refer to a great tip or hint. 💡 This is based on the modern expression 꿀팁 (kkul tip), which means “honey hint” or “sweet tip”. 🍯🐝 Instead of supporting the use of honey, certain vegans prefer to implement plant-based words such as “mandarin”! 😁🌱🍊

After all, this is not the end of the story about citrus fruits in Korea! 🍊🇰🇷 Beside the common edible fruits mentioned here, the Korean peninsula houses other kinds of citrus, including native species and local variants! Among them is for example Taengja (탱자), scientifically known as Citrus trifoliata, which is not intended for consumption but significant in traditional Korean architecture because the thorny shrub acts as a fence. 🏡 But that topic can grow into another lengthy story… 🌱


Overview of mandarin oranges that are easily confused

Now that you’ve read a lot about mandarin oranges in Korea, can you identify them? 👨‍🏫 Check out the images below and see whether you can name them yourself! 🍊🏷 At the end of the slideshow, you can find images with the solution! 😉👇

Additionally, here’s a table with keywords summing up the characteristics of mandarins, including Korea’s common cultivars Gyul, Hallabong, Cheonhyehyang, Redeuhyang and Hwanggeumhyang! 👩‍🏫🍊

Hwanggeumhyang 황금향Cheonhyehyang 천혜향Redeuhyang
Shape– oblate– round
– protruding bump on top
– round– oblate– oblate
– slightly flat
Size– golf ball to smaller than fist– fist-sized or larger– tennis ball– tennis ball to larger than fist
– larger than fist
Peel– green to yellow-orange color
– thick peel
– smooth surface
– yellow-orange color
– very thick peel
– uneven, bumpy surface
– orange to red-orange color
– thin and brittle peel
– yellow to yellow-orange color
– thin but elastic peel
– glossy, smooth surface
– red-orange color
– slightly uneven surface
– thick but brittle peel
Membrane– chewy
– individual segments can be easily separated
– chewy
– individual segments can be easily separated
– very soft
– segments cannot be separated easily
– soft
– segments cannot be separated easily
– very soft and brittle
– individual segments can be easily separated
Flesh– orange color
– juicy
– sweet and sour
– yellow-orange color
– juicy
– more sour
– lightly sweet
– flesh is dense
– yellow-orange color
– very juicy
– lightly sweet
– flesh is dense but soft
– orange color
– juicy
– sweet
lightly sour
– sometimes slightly bitter
– red-orange color
– very sweet
– flesh is loose
Fragrancesweet, freshfreshfresh, slightly pungentsweet, fresh, flowerysweet, subtle
Characteristics– very easy to peel
– very cheap
– very common
– easy to peel
– common
– hard to peel
– less common
– hard to peel
– expensive
– easy to peel
– expensive

[Data is based on personal observations and perceptions.]


Notes from the author
  • *) The Standard Chinese pronunciation of the character 柑 is gān, while the Japanese reading is kan かん.
  • **) The character 橘 is read as in contemporary Standard Chinese and kitsu きつ (or kichi きち) in Japanese.
  • ***) Annals of Joseon Dynasty: 《세종실록》 19권 1423년(세종 5년) 1월 1일.
  • ****) Online database of the Annals of Joseon Dynasty: Korean and Sino-Korean.

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