Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Philippines, Myanmar, Singapore

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Fruits of Southeast Asia (from Malaysia)

There are many fruits likely to be unfamiliar to the uninitiated traveler to Southeast Asia. Here are a few tips to help you navigate the fruit markets!

One noble fruit found here is the gigantic jackfruit. I'm pretty sure these qualify as the largest fruit in the world—it isn't uncommon for one to weigh nearly 50 pounds. Inside these massive fruits are yellow segmented fresh, each segment surrounding a large seed. The “outer fruit” comes off easily, but the seed casing, which tastes just the same, has to be peeled off from the seed itself. It is difficult to describe jackfruit as it is really unlike any other fruit I know of that might be more familiar to a “continental American.” The fresh is firm, almost crunchy even when fresh. The taste is also one of which there is no parallel that
comes to mind. It is a very unique, not overly sweet, not at all sour or even tangy. I would say it has one of the most “balanced” flavor of any fruit. It is common in India, also, and so it is a fruit I get to enjoy rather often. I think I may have overdone it, though, tonight. I can imagine gorging myself on one in its entirety. Eating it tonight made me think of myself in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu last year, leaning up against a crumbling brick wall surrounding a water tower in the tiniest sliver of shade, eating cold jackfruit from a plastic bag and spitting the seeds into the nearby open drain. Tastes can be enriched, it seems, by memories as well.

A fruit more unique to Southeast Asia is another one I relish: the rambutan, the “hairy fruit.” the outside is covered with “hairs,” and one has to be careful because the are often ants clinging to these hairs enjoying any sap that may be had. Inside is a translucent white-fleshed fruit, a lot like a lychee, and inside is a single large seed. They are easily peeled—you can bite the fruit to break the skin and just peel them apart. As you can see, I've been digging into
them, too. You are supposedly able to tell a ripe rambutan by the reddening of its husk, but since I am colorblind, I have to go by smell alone. These smelled like candy, so I knew they would be good.

Another fantastic fruit, and my favorite of all time, is the mangosteen. The ones in my hand are a little small—they are often twice that size. They have a thick purple skin that stains like nothing else, so much so that they actually stained the blade of my
stainless steel Case knife. Its segmented flesh is pure white and opaque—it reminds of me those white glass hen (soup dishes?) that always used to be around when I was younger. When they begin to go bad streaks of brown appear on that otherwise pale flesh and unfortunately go bad quite easily. In about half of the segments there will be a tiny seed. The fruit is soft and easily mashed—this is a fruit you could eat with your dentures out—but it is a little stringy, too. The taste is extremely sweet, and again, it is hard to describe a taste—we lack gustatory adjectives, I'm afraid, and so all I can do is inadequately compare it to other tastes. Imagine a strawberry with all the berry taste taken out and replaced by a banana-peach flavor instead. Get it? Sorry, but that is really the best I can do. I had a half kilogram of these sweet delicacies for breakfast this morning. These fruit made a foodie sensation last year when the first U.S. harvest large enough for sale hit the markets—people were lined up before the fruit markets opened to ensure they could crack open and savor some of these deep purple gems.
Another one, and one that you can certainly find in Honolulu, is the dragonfruit. I've taken a picture of two varieties here. The plainer, less ornate one is locally grown, the one with more “spikes” is from elsewhere in Malaysia. The flesh can be intensely red and dabbled with black seeds, as in the picture, or it can also be a pinkish white, again dappled with those black seeds. The flavor is a sweet sour, a cross between a key lime, orange and watermelon, and the flesh is much like the consistency of overripe watermelon, too. If they are not at perfect ripeness, though, they tend to be pretty bland, again much like a underripe watermelon. When they are perfectly matured, though, they have a surprisingly intense tart sweetness. As you can tell, I enjoyed them thoroughly!

Kutching mata, or “cat's eyes,” are yet another fabulous fruit, again similar to lyche
e. They taste quite similar to lychee and rambutan, and the flesh is also a similar translucent white. They can be extraordinarily sweet and remind me in taste of the heavy syrup of canned peaches. Inside, they contain a single hard black seed that the fruit comes off of quite easily. There is a lot of fruit in them compared to rambutan, though, as the seed-to-fruit ratio is much smaller and so a kilo of these is a lot more eating than a kilo of rambutan. Again, they are easily peeled—just bite the flesh to break the peel and squeeze out the fruit. As their trees are a favorite roosting spot for birds, however, it is advised to wash them before biting into them.

Of course, no mention of Malaysia fruits would be
complete without “Raja Buah-Buahan,” the “King of Fruits,” The Durian. The gods have smiled on me (as they usually do with those delightful deva grins) as it happens to be the peak of durian season at present. That means that everywhere you go their lurks the pungent aroma of durian, a smell not entirely pleasant for many . . . imagine something like banana Roquefort cheese might smell like.
I am eating it with relish . . . as in, with enjoyment, not with a pickle concoction. In its perfection, the flesh is a light cream cheese texture, and the taste . . . ah, the taste. Before, I've described it as an “oniony fruit that resembles the taste of an alien sweet ripe cheese,” but of late I've been feasting on Pahang durian. I'm no durian connoisseur, but the taste of the Pahang durian is definitely rich, creamy, and quite a bit like a very sweet cheese . . . imagine ricotta blended with sweet syrup and fruit juice. The onioniness I associated with durian is ever-so-faint, as well as the ripe cheese tones. It is spectacular. My friend, however, described the taste when he tried it as “rotten chicken head” and the texture as “putrefying meat, much like the taste.” I thought it was exquisite, though. I admit, it is an acquired taste (this coming from someone who sincerely thinks funasushi really is good drinking food). I choked it down the first few times that I had it myself, but now I am savoring it with relish—so much so that writing this is making me salivate. The first time I remember having it and really liking it was on a trip with Swee Tuk Lah to Palau Pangkor, a day trip we made together (and the first and only time I saw a hornbill in the wild) after I'd been in Malaysia about six months or so.

Anyway, all this writing about durian is making me crave it. I think I'll go get myself some now, only—I'll have to eat it outside: no durian allowed in the hotel!


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