Longing for Lemon

By Shaheen Perveen

Life without lemons may seem unthinkable today. Imagine the every day citrus celebration that adds zest to an array of gastronomic tang ! Lemons have always been a prized kitchen companion that enlivens everything from simple soups to derring do dishes.

Beyond the culinary caboose, the trusty lemon is a fruit of a thousand uses. Have a look at the ladies of Louis XIV’s (1638-1715) court who loved to bite lemons in order to keep their lips seductively red. The Romans valued lemons as an antidote to all poisons. So called “golden apples of the Hesperides” that Hercules had to fetch from the garden guarded by dragons, were in fact lemons – a curiosity and decorative fruit in classical Rome. The Chinese cherished the fruit on their long sea voyages and later the Britishers made it mandatory for their sailors to stave scurvy.

The Arabs were the pioneers in spreading the lemon cultivation. As early as the twelfth century, Ibn Jamiya ( physician to Sultan Saladin) wrote the “Treatise of the Lemon”. The work, replete with recipes, was worthy of translation in Latin in 1583. The Arabs use lemon in a variety of ways – fresh, dried, pickled, preserved, etc, They preserve it in salt and spices until its texture is simonized to a silky finish.

Lemon at its earliest is believed to have been used by the people of Indus Valley Civilization. The archaeological findings at the site included an ear ring shaped like a lemon. Beyond this rare lemony artifact, nothing more is known about the usages of lemon by these primeval people.

Historical references to lemon as “Median Apples” can be gleamed in Greek comedies of Aristophanes (5th century B.C.), the botanical writings of Theophrastus (4th century B.C) and the Roman poet Virgil (1st century B.C). Athenaeus, the third century A.D., Roman scholar describes the popular belief that lemon was a powerful antidote. He illustrated the tale of two criminals thrown to venomous snakes. The one had eaten a lemon before the bite, survived while the other succumbed to death.

The Romans appreciated lemon as a rare, expensive and a curio fruit that decked the walls of Pompeii and continued to appear in numerous murals, until the fall of the Roman empire by fifth century A.D. The Romans preferred vinegar and occasionally sumac berries to set sour accents in their cuisine.

The Arabs carried lemon as far as China where it was called li mung (from Limun in Arabic). The earliest reference to Lemon in China can be found in chronicles of Sung period (960-1280 AD). The Arab invasion of Spain in the eighth century reintroduced Lemon that flourished in Andalusia – one of the finest lemon producing orchards in the world today. Mexico and the U.S. are the main lemon producers

As late as the fifteenth century Lemon was still a curious, luxury citrus fruit that was far from the maddening crowd. In 1494, the Spanish prince, Cesare Borgia’s assortment of gifts to his wife included lemons and oranges ! Around this time Columbus (during his second voyage) carried the citrus seeds to Haiti from where it reached Florida. The Franciscan missionaries brought it over to California in the 1850s following the Gold Rush. Today this place squeezes 1/3 of global lemon produce.

The sea farers carried lemon in their baggage but never knew that thing tangy fruit was a powerful remedy for their most dreaded sea disease – scurvy, that had killed countless sailors in their lure for new lands. Vasco da Gama lost half his crew when he was on his way to India in 1497.

Around 1600 the British collected only lemons and oranges from the port of Madagascar to try them out as a possible cure for scurvy. It was a period when scurvy ( its causes and remedy) was a subject of argy bargy. It was not until 1753 when James Lind – a British naval surgeon, endorsed the potentials of lemon. By the turn of the century the British Navy began ordering a daily ration of citrus from West Indies for members of the Royal Navy.

Lemon is not only the most potent and concentrated source of Vitamin C but also contains vitamin A, B and P, besides potassium, magnesium and folic acid. The outer layer or the zest contains an essential acid which tends to flavour and perfume the food, like Lemon pies, soufflé and the mousse. Lemon is an ideal thirst quenching fruit that yields juice, which serves in a number of delicious beverages and drinks. Lemonade or the lemon sherbet is a perfect beverage and one of the most popular, refreshing drink in the hot weather. The Mughals perfected several such drinks. Though lemon is acidic, it is believed that its effect is alkaline. Ripe lemons tend to be sweeter and less acidic. To counter it, commercial lemons are harvested green and allowed to ripen in the warehouses.

Lemon is recommended by physicians for a number of ailments like bladder infections, kidney stone, bronchitis, catarrh, constipation, heartburn, hiccup, pyorrhea, sunburn, intestinal worms, dysentery,etc.. European herbalists once recommended pearls dissolved in lemon juice as a treatment for epilepsy.

Fried or grilled fish is nearly always served with a few splashes of lemon juice which mitigates the typical `fishy’ smell and makes it more appealing. It is an ideal ingredient in salads, especially in the Mediterranean countries. Lemon juice intensifies the flavour of many fruits, and a few drops of lemon juice plus a dash of sugar creates a slightly sweet-sour tang that can make many vegetables more interesting. It aids the digestion of protein food.

Besides being much acclaimed as a natural remedy, Lemon is an ideal kitchen companion, a perfect beauty therapy ingredient and an all round house mate that can be put to myriad uses.

The pain and burn due to sting of any insect is allayed by the application of lemon juice. It is also recommended for cuts and bleeding if one can withstand the sting. Few drops of juice on the cut serves as a disinfectant and the cut closes and heals sooner. Nose bleed also responds remarkably to lemon juice. Lemon is believed to be a powerful germicide that can outwit 20 different types of germs. During the monsoon, when malaria and cholera are rampant, the use of pickled lemon is recommended as it serves as a prophylactic.

Lemon juice is a great antiseptic. Mixed with olive or almond oil it cures eczema externally. Combined with papaya juice it works wonder in cases of athlete’s foot.

There is nothing that can rejuvenate your skin like a lemon, which helps to maintain the pH balance of the skin. An ideal facemask can be prepared using lemon and honey in equal quantities and leaving the paste for ten minutes. An old remedy for wrinkles was to apply lemon directly to the skin, leave for two to three hours and then massage with olive oil. Fruit acids ( alpha hydroxy acids) are highly valued in the cosmetics industry and it is an important ingredient in various skin creams.

After shampooing, retouch your hair with a final rinse made out of water and lemon ( half a lemon mixed to 500 ml of water). This fights dandruff, sweeps the soap film and excess oils.

Lemon juice added to rice prevents it from sticking and further it enhances its white colour. To prevent eggs from cracking while boiling it, simply paint the eggs with lemon juice. Further adding a tea spoon of lemon juice to the boiling eggs will ensure that the shell peels off with little effort. Lemon juice sprinkled on fish before cooking enhances it flavour. Similarly, chicken and meat marinated in lemon juice becomes tender and tastier. Fruits like apple when peeled and cut can be prevented from enzyme browning by applying lemon juice. And finally to counter the odour of garlic, onion, sea food, fish, etc the best thing is to rub your hands against a piece of lemon dipped in table salt.

Lemon juice added to baking soda makes an excellent stain remover and even serves as a safe, mild bleach. Rust stains are easily removed by covering the rusted areas with salt and then rubbing it over with lemon juice. Aluminum, brass and copper implements regain their lusture once they are treated with lemon juice mixed with salt.

Prefer lemons with smooth skins that are free from bruises or wrinkles. Ripe ones exude a pleasant citrus aroma. Lemons are best kept at room temperature, which yields more juice as compared to refrigerated lemon. Consider placing the lemon in hot water or microwave it ( 30 seconds ) to extract more juice.

About the author, Shaheen Perveen:
A housewife based in New Delhi, history is my forte and kitchen is my kingdom. I love exploring the origin, history and evolution of various fruits, vegetables and fruits, besides their nutrition facts, uses and tips related to them. My works have appeared in various publications like The Statesman, Living in the Gulf ( Dubai), Asian Cuisine ( Singapore), etc.


  1. i always do some heavy lifting and body building exercises and protein foods are my priority on my diet ,.:

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