Physalis alkekengi, also known as Chinese lantern, is part of the Nightshade family and generally used as an ornamental plant due to the red husk of the flower. This plant is native to throughout Asia and in Southern Europe. Enclosed in the red lantern-shaped flower is a small berry, which is slightly yellow and has a flavor similar to a sweet tomato. This berry is difficult to find in the United States and may only be available in specialty stores or farmers' markets in the spring. Despite its strange papery enclosure, Chinese lantern berries are quite simple to eat and use in cooking.
Pick the berries only when the husk turns a beige or cream color. If you pick it while the flower is still bright red, the berry will be too sour to eat or use. These fruits are rich in vitamin A and C, as well as phosphorous, calcium and iron.
Pull down the husk to reveal the yellowish berry. You can eat it right off the stem as a snack, similar to grapes. According to C. Mishra in "Biotechonology Applications," these berries may help to improve metabolism and have a diuretic and laxative effect. They are also rich in pectin -- a complex carbohydrate that may help prevent constipation.
Cut the berries as a replacement for cherry tomatoes in salads and as a garnish. Due to the similar taste, lantern berries make excellent substitutions for small tomatoes in an array of dishes. Chinese lantern berries contain the powerful antioxidant superoxide dismutase, which may help to prevent oxidative-related diseases, such as arthritis, although further research is necessary.
Use the unripened green berries for a pie filling by filling a pie crust with 4 cups Chinese lantern berries and sugar to taste. Although too sour to eat raw, cooking these berries with sugar softens them and gives them more of a tart taste.
Substitute Chinese lantern berries for cranberries in a savory sauce to couple with turkey, pork, fish or other meat. Add 1 tbsp. sugar for every ½ cup berries and a small splash of water in a saucepan over low heat for about 15 minutes. Once the berries are soft, you can puree the mixture with an onion or herb of your choice. You may want to add the sugar after the berries finish cooking to avoid making the sauce too sweet.
You can use Chinese lantern berries in place of several fruit desserts, but you will always need to prepare them first by heating them with water and sugar until they are soft. Depending on your preference, you can adjust the sugar content for desserts and sauces.