As I was beelining to the lunch counter at my neighborhood Korean market, something shiny and expensive caught my eye. It was a shrink-wrapped package of four mandarin oranges for $11.96. They were large for mandarins but not miraculously so. And they were ugly. Each had a wrinkly, distended bump at the stem end, rather like one of John B. McLemore’s pierced nipples. The label identified them as “Hallabong mandarins,” and I couldn’t pass them up. When small international markets offer up stupid expensive seasonal fruit, you don’t take a pass. That’s how you can bring home fresh dates, mangosteens and monstera. Plus you get to say "Hallabong," which sounds like a portmanteau of Halliburton and billabong.
I brought these citrus fruits home and ate one, and then another, and by the third it was obsessive love. Hallabong! Light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Hal-la-bong.
Okay, that may be overstating my nascent obsession but, man, Hallabongs are delicious. They’re easy to peel, with the yielding, pull-apart sections of a satsuma but the seedless, juice-cell-packed glory of a navel orange. The flesh is firm but not ornery, and explosive like a Honeycrisp apple. The flavor? Both sweeter and more acidic than expected, nudging your palate to its happiest place.
This pleasure comes at a steep price. That $12 could have been spent on a craft cocktail, a sushi burrito, or two boxes of ant traps. But the ants and I most heartily enjoyed our Hallabong time, listening to the last episodes of S-Town.
Consumers have been obsessed with this hybrid fruit-part mandarin, part orange-since Japanese horticulturists developed it in the 1970s. Called the Dekopon in Japanese (meaning, roughly, “bumpy mandarin”), it was rechristened as the Sumo mandarin when the first California crop showed up in American markets about five years ago. What a branding trifecta: it was ample in girth, it was Japanese, and it had a ridiculous protuberance atop that looked like a sumo wrestler’s chonmage topknot.
I have a vague memory of buying Sumo mandarins and finding them juicy but unmemorable. Their thin, slack rinds render the fruit easy to peel but also easy to bruise, as these often were. Also, lengthy refrigeration may spare the integrity of taut navel and Cara Cara oranges but robs this softer citrus of its ephemeral flavor. Bad Sumo mandarins reminded me of the moniker that a race of silicon-based life forms on Star Trek: The Next Generation used to describe humans: “ugly bags of mostly water.”
The wonder of my Korean market Hallabongs made me pay attention to the cultivar, and then to look for it despite the plethora of names it has acquired. A nearby supermarket stocked Shiranui mandarins for $1.99 apiece. One look at that spool-sized bump, and I knew I was in business.
It was larger than my last remaining Hallabong, but didn’t have the stop-you-in-your-tracks flavor-that top note of orange blossom and honey. It was pleasurable like that simple glass of Grüner Veltliner that wets your whistle, but not the bottle of Riesling that captivates your soul.
Farmers in Asia seem to know best how to coddle fresh fruit in season. When I lived in Japan I was astonished by the prices charged for beautiful melons and strawberries. Granted, this primo bounty was intended for gift giving, and the packaging mattered as much as the contents. But I would occasionally splurge on a piece of fruit that cost more than a sushi dinner and feel a pang for that flavor of the season at its sweetest.
South Koreans have cultivated this citrus long enough that the country’s finest groves are associated with a place: Jeju Island. My friend Jiyeon Lee explains to me that the word “Hallabong” derives from Hallasan, a volcanic mountain on Jeju topped with a large caldera that looks like the fruit’s signature bump. Lee-a former K-Pop star who now makes Atlanta’s best barbecue at Heirloom Market BBQ-says the fruit was once exotic but is now a staple used to flavor Korean sweets and served with Jeju’s famous green tea.
If the Hallabongs I bought were grown in Korea-and I suspect they were-then now would be a good time to get thee to a Korean market. Look for the rude bump. The analogy that comes to your mind won’t be sweet, unlike the flavor, which couldn’t be sweeter.