Saturday, June 5, 2010

Strange Fruit

There’s zero cooking involved in this post but I thought you might like to take a look at some of the exotic tropical fruit common here but hard to find elsewhere.

Here’s a Vientiane institution that New York’s health crusading mayor Michael Bloomberg would whole heartedly embrace. It’s the fruit cart guy. Everyday he and others like him wheel unmotorized carts around the neighborhood dinging their little bells to announce their arrival. He sells fruit and things that are closely related to fruit - like corn on the cob - as snacks which Laotians buy, well, literally by the cartload.

He’s also a good barometer of what’s in season since he certainly doesn’t have the capital to invest in high end imported items. All this produce is sold with a little packet of dipping mix made up of chili, salt, sugar and MSG. Today we have watermelon, sour plums, corn and this:

This is the seed pod of the lotus (nelumbo nucifera). The lotus is sacred in Buddhism and represents the beauty of enlightenment rising from the muck of the pond. And it’s all edible, roots, leaves, stems and pods. At first I found these seeds way too bitter to be enjoyable but then I discovered that there’s an outer skin which if peeled off leaves a tasty little morsel. It’s like peeling a fava bean and may be the Lao equivalent of sunflower seeds. Something you fiddle around with while chatting to friends or watching TV.

As I write, rambutan, (nephilium lappaceum) is here in abundance. Aren’t they fabulous looking? You peel off the fuzzy red outside to reveal a litchi like fruit that is better than a litchi. Like a litchi, it has a small pit in the middle of it. The English, rambutan, actually comes from Malay and means hairy. They’re addictive.

This may be my absolute favorite tropical fruit. Mangosteen (garfinia mangostana). Also very much in season right now. You peel off the purplish skin which reveals four or five pure white segments, botanically known as “arils” which have a sweet, evanescent, perfume-like flavor.

This has to win the prize for most gaudy and glamorous in the fruit category. Dragon fruit (hylocereus undatus). Unfortunately, it’s flavor doesn’t quite match up to the visuals. It’s a bit bland with a whole lot of kiwi like little black seeds in it. I once saw it growing in Vietnam and it was amazing. Imagine a tree that looks like a Christmas cactus but instead of an orange flower at the end of the serrated succulent leaves one of these is hanging.

Right after I penned the above words I went on line and found this photo of a dragon fruit plant and guess what? It is a cactus! One which hails from central America. Which seems odd since I’ve never seen it for sale in southern Mexico where it originally comes from. N.B. My pal, Bill Pandolf, who lives in Veracruz, Mexico, wrote that the plant grows wild there and is pollinated by night flying fruit bats. The flower opens at night and dies the next day. He sometimes sees the fruit in springtime in small country markets for just a day or two and then they’re gone.

Obviously these are mangos but the difference in Laos is that people like to eat them green. My landlady, Nang, gave me these which she’d just picked off her tree. The Lao like to use the green mango just like green papaya. Peeled, shredded and tossed with chilies, fish sauce, lime, garlic and a pinch of sugar. But they also eat it as is. Lao find the sour puckery quality thirst quenching.

Pomelo is like a grapefruit on steroids – known appropriately in Latin as citrus maxima - but it’s not as bitter and also not quite as juicy. It has a thicker rind and you definitely have to peel off the membrane around each section because it’s too tough. Bruce, my husband, has really gotten into a fruit salad mix of this and fresh pineapple, along with Chinese pears, watermelon, and topped with banana. Pomelo is also used in Vietnam in cold beef salads although I haven’t encountered that here as of yet.

I first had custard or sugar apples (annona squamosa) in India. The people we were staying with in Mysore had two trees by the front door. As with all fruit, they were so much more delicious straight from the bush than these I bought here in the market. It’s kind of a pain to eat as well - the skin is mealy so you have to gently pry it off and the flesh inside has lots of small pits that you have to keep spitting out as you go along which doesn’t make for very attractive eating.

Here is the infamous, kind of scary looking, durian (durio zibethinus). The durian has an extremely rank odor which grows stronger as its season progresses. Airlines in southeast Asia forbid it being brought into the passenger cabin and Singapore has banned it being transported on the subway. Way too smelly. You either love it or hate it. But I find the fruit - here pre-peeled by the market vendor – to be actually quite tasty.

When I bought this I thought I was getting a kind of funky looking fig, but it’s not. It’s mak thong. I have no idea what the English or Latin might be. When I cut it open it was another example of a thick skinned fruit with a litchi-like core. Again, quite sour. It was o.k. but I wouldn’t seek it out.

I saw a big pile of these for sale by the side of the road . I haven’t seen them in the market. They’re the fruit of a type of palm tree so perhaps that makes them more of a nut, although the Lao name is mak than and mak is the Lao language classifier for all things fruit. The woman who sold them had to give them a considerable number of machete whacks to get them open.

Here’s the outside and inside. After busting open the fruit/nut you retrieve this white oval lozenge which itself has to be peeled. I have to say that as glamorous as all this seemed the flavor was practically non-existent and certainly not worth the effort. I’m sticking with mangos and pineapple and those wonderful mangosteen.