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.


Bird of Shadows said...

As a Saudi Jawa myself, i salute your love for Salak. My grandmother used to bring it to me herself every Friday when i was a child. Good old time memories :). I hope you are enjoying your time in the southeast :)

Ali said...

Haha I never tried Durian myself but heard a lot about it from my Malaysian friends. Apparently one of them tried to smuggle it here and got caught in the airport due to the smell (obvious eh?).

Oh and I loooveeee Rambutan (I finally know what its called now, thanks).

jaka said...

Ah, you forgot to mention the wonderful duku.

Sketched Soul said...

Wow, what amazing fruits! The Durian sounds very interesting!!

Thank you for sharing... much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Nice post! May I copy it for my blog? Of course, I'll mention your blog and give the link. I've been wanting to write about Indonesian fruits but never had the chance. Let me know!

Saudi Jawa said...

Sure thing. Knock yourself out :)

Hajar said...

The Buah salak. Sure it tastes lovely and all. Yet, it never fail to freak me out. The skin is just too scaly. *haha~*

Excluding the Belimbing, I am blessed with family members that grow the other fruits in their orchards @ garden, thus enabling me to have fresh supply when they're in season. :)

James said...

Your post was very detailed. I had to give a report a while back on South Eastern cuisine, and your site was very useful.

Joko said...

I love Durian and Salak