Friday, April 25, 2008

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Wonderful World of Southeast Asian Fruits

One of the wonderful things about the tropics is the endless varieties of flora and fauna. The vast cornucopia of colors, flavors and smells of tropical fruit never fail to astound me. As big part of the Jawa culture here in Saudi Arabia, exotic fruits has always been part of my (culinary) identity. So here are some of the most common. You can find most of these in top supermarkets, though they will be far from fresh. But unless you're willing to pay your way to Indonesia every time you crave one of these beauties, supermarket fare should be good enough.

"Rambut" means hair in Indonesian, and it should be quite obvious from the pictures where this fruit gets its name. A relative of the lychee fruit, this sweet and juicy morsel is a popular favorite. Easy to peel and easier to eat. Though the external layer of the seed does tend to stick to the fruit despite one's best efforts. You can also find canned rambutans, which taste pretty good.

You think fruit with hair is weird? Try fruit with snake scale skin! But don't let the serpentine appearance fool you. This fruit is heavenly, especially when fresh. Last time I was in Indonesia I was addicted to the stuff. Inside the skin are 2-3 lobes. The flesh is rather dry and the seed is huge. Oh and don't eat too many. Many a stomach ache I've had back during my salak eating spree.

Manggis (Mangosteen)
Not a particular favorite of mine, but I know a lot of people who adore this fruit, and it's fairly commonly available in supermarkets as well. Inside a thick skin you can find several soft garlic like bulbs. These have a somewhat sweet citrus-like taste, almost like a mandarin.

Belimbing (Star Fruit)
Now this little wonder of nature is beautiful. With its wax like outer layer, its brilliant color and unique shape few fruits in the world make better presentation pieces than the star fruit. Like its name suggests, it's shaped like a five pointed star so make sure you slice it breadth wise for the full effect. They taste very good as well. Nice and tart.

Ooooh the durian. King of Fruits. Stuff of Legend. The strength of the durian's polarizing effect is only rivaled by the strength of its smell. You basically either love it to pieces, or you hate it with a passion. About as big as a mid sized water melon, this fearsome fruit sports a skin that is bristling with military grade thorns. You do not want to be hit in the head with a durian. But its resemblance to medieval weaponry isn't the source of its dire reputation. "It's the smell ..."(paraphrasing Agent Smith from the Matrix). The smell has been described by travel writer Richard Sterling as "pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock." And it's powerful. If you bring a durian home, be rest assured your whole home will smell like durian for days. Some airports and hotels forcefully ban durians from entering the premises.
If, brave soul, you have survived opening up a durian fruit you will find several pieces of yellowish pulp, with a texture that is somewhat custard like. And the taste? Well, that's what separates the lovers from the haters. While I belong to the former camp, my wife-to-be is firmly in the latter. So I guess that's the end of my durian adventures. This fruit is hard to find outside of SE Asia, but you might be able to find durian flavored candy in Asian shops, which are a milder alternative to the real thing and a good starting point for those who don't mind trying something new.

Nangka (Jack Fruit)
Don't mistake this with the durian. Though they may look similar from the outside, they're very different fruits. Inside the thorny husk are several yellow and firm bulbs. They are very sweet with a distinctive flavor that is somewhat similar to a pineapple. They are widely available in canned form.

Jambu (Wax Apple)
Ok I haven't actually seen this fruit outside of Indonesia but I thought I'd mention it since it's a favorite of mine. There was a jambu tree outside Grandfather's house and I grew very fond of them. I remember first biting into one and thinking: "Shape like a pear, red like an apple, and taste like a sweet crunchy tomato!". God I miss them.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Elevator Idiocy

Much like queues, there's something about elevators that brings out the worst in people. Perhaps it's the enclosed space, or the enforced waiting that rubs our inner barbarian the wrong way. Whatever that reason may be, elevators tend to devolve humans into apes.

Some time ago, I was in the legal notary in Makkah doing some legwork for some boring (but necessary) legal matter. Legwork. There's plenty of going up and down stairs. Yes there's an elevator, but it's so old and slow that I usually dispense with its use and depend upon my own personal locomotion facility. I could use the exercise anyway. While waiting for my papers to finish I noticed a couple of people who weren't as industrious as I was, waiting by the elevator. The door opened and there was a woman inside.

"Is this the third floor?" she asked. It was only the second floor.

For the benefit of those not steeped in Saudi etiquette lore; riding in an elevator with an unrelated woman can be considered "simply not done", especially by the more conservative.
So what did our two ne'er-do-wells do?

They said "Yes, it is!".

As the poor confused woman vacated the elevator, the two assholes rushed to get in before she wised up to their subterfuge. Divine Justice struck and the elevator chose this moment to blow a fuse or whatever. The doors chose that moment to close prematurely. On our two crafty villains. Sandwiched like peanut butter and jelly between two iron slices of toast. Understandably, no one moved in to help. One of our dastardly pair had to do a minor feat of gymnastics and stretch his arm behind his back and press the open button to release them from the grip of their sin's vise. Meanwhile, our poor victim climbed the stairs, thanking God she wasn't in the elevator when it decided to go crazy.

I'm sure we all have elevator related stories, and I'll be posting more soon.

See you then.