Thursday, March 27, 2008

List #27 and Thursday Thirteen #6: Fruits you find in Laos

Thirteen Tropical Fruits

Fruits in Asia are amazing and people eat a lot of fruit. At the end of a meal, hosts offer fruit for desert. During the long hot afternoons, people will buy small sour fruits and berries which they eat with sugar and powdered chile peppers.

Some fruits can be found in the US, but they have to be eaten fresh before you really can experience them. Some of the following pictures are mine; some I found on wikipedia.

1. Lychee - usually found in cans in American supermarkets, they grow abundantly in the tropics. And fresh lychees are nothing like the poor specimens drowned in sugary syrup that are sent to the US in cans. The first reference to lychees was in a Chinese text in the Tang Dynasty, where the emperor's concubine craved them and he had them delivered by fast horse to keep her happy.

2. Longan - a little smaller than a Lychee with a brown tough skin and black pit. They are also called 'Dragon's Eyes.' The rind is thin and you can peel it back a little to pop out the fruit, which is white, and with the dark seed inside, it lives up to its nickname.

3. Rambutan - On the outside, they are red and green with soft spines. They are like burrs but bigger and red. I can't imagine how they evolved to look the way they do. Once you open them up, the fruit is sweet; the outside of the seed often comes off and it tastes a little nutty.

4. Mangostein - is a very strange fruit, very fleshy rind on the outside with a multisegmented fruit inside. It is the most sugary fruit imaginable and can only be taken in small doses - but very intense doses they are. Apparently the wood is very hard and can be used for spears and rice pounders; the rind can be used for tanning leather. So there's more to this fruit than meets the tongue.

I couldn't find any pictures I liked for this fruit. Maybe I'll have to buy some and take my own.

5. Custard Apple -
This fruit just about had a texture like bread. Again, very sweet. Originally from South America, somehow it has gotten around the world. And if you don't want to eat the fruit, the leaf juice can be used to kill lice. The seeds are very hard but don't kill you if swallowed - which is good because they are toxic, and also can be used as an insecticide.

6. Dragon Fruit, also known as Pitaya is actually a cactus.
The fruit grows on the end of spindly cactus stalk, and surprisingly, it grows well in tropical climates. Around SE Asia, Cambodia and Vietnam grow and export a lot. The red skin pulls away from the fruit easily. The inside is white, a little crunchy and sugary tasting - the black seeds are crunchy and although I expected them to taste like poppy seeds, they don't.

7. Guava I love guavas. There are so many varieties and you can eat them either ripe or green. The most common variety we get here is the apple-sized type in this picture, which is eaten green - it's slightly sour with a lot of seeds. There are smaller and sweeter varieties in the north, which are just wonderful. As I write this, I'm craving one right now.

The leaves of guava can be used as traditional medicine. Cambodian friends tell me that the tea can be drunk to cure diarrhea.

Several years ago, my landlady had cut herself badly with her machete when she was weeding. The wound looked awful so I insisted that she see a doctor friend of mine. She didn't want oral medicine and certainly did not want an injection - so he told her to boil the leaves of guava, wash her leg several times a day and stay off her feet. I kinda of rolled my eyes - but I was the one to be surprised when I returned from the province a week later and saw that her wound was healed.

8. Of course, everyone knows and loves mangoes - however, here mangoes are something else. There are 300 hundred varieties grown in Thailand. There are about 50 varieties that are commonly available here - and they all have their unique taste. Most SE Asians like to eat them green; they are crunchy and sour. A common dipping sauce is made from honey (or cane sugar), mixed with fish sauce, roasted rice powder and hot chile peppers. Another treat is khao nieo mak muan, mango with sticky rice and covered with a sauce of sweetened coconut juice. When I first worked in Thailand, we could only get ripe mangoes and sticky rice between February to May, so it was like having something that you'd really wait for. In fact, some variety of mango ripens somewhere in the country but during the 1980's, they were not shipped outside the region where they were grown. Now, there's a lot more long distance shipping so even in Laos, some varieties of mango is available all year round.

I took the picture on the right last week. The light color of the mangoes makes the tree look like it's decorated with Christmas ornaments.

9. Jackfruit - the taste for Juicy Fruit Gum comes from Jackfruit. It's a strange looking fruit; when I first saw it, it reminded me of the pods from the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The things are big - Wikipedia says they can weigh over 30 kgs. and it's the largest tree borne fruit in the world. Inside, there are yellow fruit sections which look like they're made out of plastic - the fruit is good (though it tastes like a certain gum) but the sap is very strange. It's like latex and coats your fingers.
The Mughul Emperor Babar said, "The jackfruit is ugly and to some people is bad tasting. It looks exactly like sheep intestines turned inside out like stuffed tripe. It has a cloyingly sweet taste." I wouldn't go so far in my description - but it is an acquired taste!

10 Papaya Papayas that you buy in the US are nothing like the papayas grown here, which can reach epic sizes. Some people find that the smell of ripe papaya is rather disturbing. OK, let's say it - it smells like vomit. However, it's very good for helping digestion and its aftermath. Most Asians prefer to eat green papaya, and make spicy salad by pounding grated papaya together with fish sauce, chile peppers, lemons, tomatoes, and sometimes raw cane sugar and lemon juice. Another kind of Vietnamese salad is fish sauce, dried shrimp, lemon juice and a little sugar topped with grilled beef and peanuts.

Green papaya is supposed to be good for high blood pressure, the seeds good for inflammation and stomach problems and the fruit can be applied to fungal skin problems.

One of my favorite Vietnamese films is The Scent of Green Papaya. It takes place in the early 60's as the Vietnam War is heating up, also a time of social upheaval in Vietnam. The movie takes place in the small lane and house of one middle-class family, who hire a girl name Moui (which means 'salt'). The wife in the house is very kind to her, because she remembers her own deceased daughter who would have been Moui's age. The grandmother in the house prays all day in front of the family shrine - which she had done continuously since the death of her husband many years ago. The feeling is the house is half-dreamy with ghosts of deceased relatives and memories, and filled with desperation, of people living out destinies that would not have been of their choosing. When Moui is 17, she goes to work for a young pianist and they slowly fall in love. A new life starts to open for her.

Throughout the film, Moui is mystified by human relationships and the natural world. Preparation of food and of cutting and grating the green papaya symbolizes freshness and a new life. It's a very powerful film.

The picture on the left is green papaya salad. I didn't follow the advise from my last list, on taking pictures of food and had not wiped off the smudges on the edge of the plate. The papaya salad, eaten with sticky rice, was delicious.

11. Coconuts - There are a myriad variety of coconuts and they can be used in so many ways. Of course, there is the method of just drinking fresh coconut juice. One of the best type of coconuts are the roasted ones - they are young coconuts, where the outer husk has been chopped and then burned away. The juice is very refreshing, and the coconut meat inside is very tender.

The large coconuts can be very sweet - though if left for too long, the juice can be tasteless. Coconut fiber has so many uses - compressed fiber is even used in beds.

12. Pomelo - While it looks like a grapefruit, it's not as juicy or as sour as a grapefruit. The rind is about 2 inches thick and it takes skill to take it off. The inside is segmented like a grapefruit and you peel off the thick skin on the segment and pull out the pulp to eat it. I like them much more than grapefruits.

13. Tamarind - come in seed pods, which when opened, there's a brownish paste with seeds in it. The paste itself is sour and has the consistency of mashed prunes. It's great to eat by itself, if you can stand the sour taste, but also dipped in sugar and powdered chile peppers. And tamarind paste is used for so many wonderful dishes - sour soup, chutneys, a sauce for shrimp.

The one fruit I can not stand is Durian

Most of my friends love to eat durian, and will even eat an entire one in a sitting (kilogram size!). I can't get close enough to even try to eat one. All the major hotels in Thailand have signs with a big red X across the fruit - once the smell of a durian (which may be due to hydrogen sulfide) attaches itself to the walls, the room always smells of Durian.

I guess it's one fruit that proves the saying: To each his own! There are certainly plenty of other fruits to keep one happy here.

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Nicholas said...

I was scrolling down your list, wondering if you were going to include Durian fruit! When I first went to SE Asia I saw signs prohibiting it in hotel room and on planes and I wondered what could possibly be so bad about an edible fruit. Then I smelled one!

Open Grove Claudia said...

Gosh these look wonderful. I had a friend from Bejing who would bring me fruit. Yummy! I like that it's fibrous and not too extremely sweet - or some of it!

Happy TT!

SJ Reidhead said...

What a great list.

The Pink Flamingo

SandyCarlson said...

Those are amazing fruits. That dragon fruit just wants to open its eyes and mouth and talk! What a feast for the eyes and the imagination. Thanks.

Adelle said...

I'm a big fruit lover. Would love to try some of these. Happy T13!

chanpheng said...

@nicholas - I think every list has to include durian, whether it's considered to be a divine foodstuff or toxic material.

@open_grove_claudia - It's great to have so much fresh fruit, of the tropical and exotic variety.

@sj_reidhead - Thank you!

@sandycarlson - dragon fruit is continuously amazing, especially whe I actually saw it growing. My landlady had several plants.

@adelle - the only way to really eat these fruits is to get them fresh and that means being over here!

Eamon said...

Ah lucky you living in Lao.

Was there a couple or so years ago. It is a fantastic place. Visited Luang Prabang. Beautiful countryside, interesting architecture. But above it was the people and the quiet pace of life that made it for me.

verabear said...

I love your TT. I am in the Philippines so ALL of those fruits are around me too (well I'm not sure about Dragon Fruit, I've seen them in the market though).

We call your Custard Apple, Star apple. There used to be lots of those trees in the community I grew up in.

Tink said...

Yummy, I love tropical fruits!
Thanks for visiting my grandmothers TT.

Sonia said...

What a delicious list! Thanks for sharing!

I have also in my garden Lychee tree, if you have the time, take a look on Lychee on my orchard.

Xander said...

The first time I ate durian was in Luang Phrabang, and I struggled not to become ill. Several months later I tried it again here in Bangkok, and was amazed at it's sweet, vanilla ice-cream flavor. -X