Fruits of Southeast Asia

| February 14, 2007 | 9 Comments
  • 9 Comments

I am a person who has tasted a lot of different foods during my life. Before my trip last month to Vietnam, I had only traveled to Europe and around the U.S. so my experiences are limited to those places, but we live in a global village and there are lots of foods available in California, right? Within two days of being in Vietnam, I had tasted five new fruits that I had never tasted before. Most of them I had never even seen or heard of either.

To say that going to Vietnam rocked my taste buds would be an understatement. This trip awakened me to so many new flavor profiles and tastes — I know that my culinary life will not be the same after this trip.

Here are some of the fruits that were new to me in Vietnam.

RAMBUTAN

Rambutans get the award for being the most flashy fruit that I tasted with their hairy, uninviting exterior. Pop them open with a knife, and inside you find a white, gelatinous ball around a relatively large pit. Related to lychees, and very similar in flavor, rambutans are delicious. They have a delicate flavor, and when they are ripe they are quite sweet with a good amount of tartness.

CUSTARD APPLE or SUGAR APPLE

Throughout the trip, everyone we met referred to these as custard apples, however now that I have the benefit of the world wide web, it seems that they are more popularly referred to as sugar apples. They have a bumpy green skin that turns black as it ripens. The inside texture reminded me of a ripe banana – very custardy in consistency. It’s a sweet fruit with shiny black pits that you spit out as you eat through it.

DRAGONFRUIT

Dragonfruit is a beautiful sight. On the outside, the bright pink you see above. On the inside, a white fruit with very small edible black seeds. I have been told that when these are at their peak of ripeness they are quite delicious. But the dragonfruits that I tried were rather unremarkable, mostly watery with a little sweetness and acidity. Maybe the gorgeous exterior set up unreasonable expectations?

SOURSOP

Most of the time that I saw a fruit I didn’t know, I would buy one from the vendor and ask them to cut it up on site so that I could figure out what it was and if I liked it. I spied these soursops, and knowing that they were the favorite fruit of a friend, tried to have the vendor cut one up for me. She made a couple of universal signs which were basically telling me to get lost, and refused to sell me anything. I found out later that soursop needs quite a bit of preparation: one must go through the inside fruit and remove the fibrous parts and the seeds before it’s ready to eat.

A couple days later, a fruit vendor prepared it properly for us and I was able to taste it. The flavor is quite acidic, with a strong sweet fruit overtone that makes the entire mouthful quite pleasant. Due to it’s consistency, soursop lends itself to shakes, drinks, and ice creams quite nicely.

ROSE APPLE

When I first saw this fruit, I posted a photo on my blog to find out what it was. When the identification came back, a couple of commenters gave me their opinions of the flavor. My favorite comment stated “It is a wonderful sweet fruit, which has the odd texture of styrofoam to me”. Styrofoam is right. They are unusually lightweight as there’s just not much to them. The flavor is close to an apple, though it wasn’t my favorite.

GREEN MANGO

Though I eat mangoes like a fiend when I can find them, I had never tasted a green mango. Much like green papaya, it’s quite astringent and sour. I most liked it when wrapped in a spring roll and providing a contrast to other flavors on a dish. Not to be completely childish about this, but I think I would like a green mango much more if it didn’t have the word MANGO in it. The word mango conjures up a wonderful, sweet, sensual flavor that is one of my favorite things in the world. And a green mango is nothing like it’s ripe cousin. So maybe one day I will get over this whole issue and learn to appreciate green mangoes for what they are.

There were other fruits I tried for which I don’t have photographs. The jackfruit is an enormous fruit, and the only way to sensibly buy it is in small bags already taken apart. It’s not as smelly as durian, but it is smelly enough that one hotel I was in had a large sign in the lobby declaring “No Durian or Jackfruit Allowed in Rooms”. And there’s a reason for that. If the smell doesn’t bother you, the flavor is very banana-like mixed with a slight citrus flavor. I loved it.

Passionfruit was my official fruit of this trip. I would buy them whenever I saw them (which was not often) and gobbled them up before I had to share. I don’t remember what exactly was in the passionfruit cocktails that I drank for three nights in a row, but they were heavenly, and I am going to have to find a way to recreate them.

Mangosteens were another fruit I had never tasted. The mangosteen has a hard, dark purple exterior and a bright green stem – kind of like an eggplant but smaller and harder. Inside, you find a segmented fruit which you can pry out and eat, discarding the seeds as you come upon them. The mangosteen just tastes like the tropics to me. The juice exploded in your mouth as you eat the pieces, and it’s a sweet, full flavor with just enough acid to keep it interesting. I can’t wait to have mangosteens again.

I haven’t done much research here in the Bay Area, but am curious if I am going to be able to get any of these fruits here. From what I’ve read, fresh mangosteens are going to be impossible. But what about rambutan? jackfruit? or my beloved passionfruit?

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About the Author ()

"My passion for food began young." I am the editor of the influential website www.EatLocalChallenge.com which encourages readers to support local farmers and producers. I began my personal website, Life Begins at 30, in 2003. I have been published in Edible San Francisco and Fine Cooking, write regularly for Bay Area Bites, Serious Eats, and have been quoted in many nationwide publications. Photography is a passion, and I have had photos printed in National Geographic Traveler and Travel + Leisure. I contributed to a Williams-Sonoma cookbook: Cooking from the Farmers' Market, which was released in February 2010. I live in San Francisco, California and can often be found at local farmers markets seeking out the best of what's in season and chatting with farmers.
  • Roasted Squid

    You should be able to find a lot of these fruits in Asian markets – maybe not Ranch 99, but in Chinatown or some of the Vietnamese places in San Jose. I’ve seen Mangosteen (frozen though), Jackfruit is quite common in season, and a version of the custard/sugar apple with a smooth, not bumpy skin, imported from Mexico is sold when in season. There is canned rambutan, like canned lichee – usually in sweet syrup. And I’ve seen the occasional dragon fruit. Believe it or not, Trader Joes sells dried dragon fruit, but it tastes nasty! Nothing like the real thing.

    Unfortunately, you may be disappointed at the quality, as most are imported… so eat up in Vietnam while you can. And if you have time… go to Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan. It’s all so yummy!

  • Diane

    Rambutans and custard apple are often available – both in Oakland Chinatown and at Berkeley Bowl as well as Ranch 99 – although not always. I buy them when I see them. I have never seen dragon fruit or soursop here.

    Green mango is insanely common. You can get it everywhere. In my experience it is best bought from little dives that sell Cambodian or Vietnamese produce, or in Oakland Chinatown, as they are truly “green” there. In places like Berkeley Bowl or conventional supermarkets the green mangos have a slower turnover and by the time they are sold are sort of “half ripe” and sweetish and less astringent than they are supposed to be.

  • Chef Ben

    Jennifer, I just came back from Vietnam as well and was really amazed at the tropical fruits. But some of them actually were quite familiar having grown up in Hawaii, we just called them different things. For example, the sour apple or sugar apple is actually a baby version of what’s known in Hawaii as breadfruit. But your description and the looks of it are very similar: custardy, fleshy inside with the bumpy exterior. Also, the rose apple is known in Hawaii as mountain apples, I guess because they grow better in the rainy mountain areas, but I loved them growing up. They were sweeter than apples and didn’t have the acidity. But fun discovering new fruits huh!?

  • McAuliflower

    The movie Aeon Flux has a nice shot of a futuristic kitchen (everything is very squareish and angled) mainly comprised of overhead shots. The dragonfruit that was being sliced on the cutting board stole the scene! :)

    I very much enjoyed the idea of these exotic fruits being futuristic.

  • Thy Tran

    Thanks for the great photos and a reminder of why I love to travel in warm climes!

    Mangosteens frozen right in their shells are available in large Asian markets (99 Ranch, New May Wah, etc.). This is my absolute favorite fruit; fortunately, several farms in the US are experimenting with varieties that should be coming to market in the next couple of years.

    Rambutan are also often available frozen; in early summer, you’ll see bunches of fresh rambutan in the produce sections of Asian markets. They pretty pricey, but there’s still a rush on them.

    Look for green mango (and green papaya) in pretty much any Asian market that serves a Southeastern and South Asian community.

  • protected static

    There’s a cookbook called Kerala: Savoring the Flavors of the Spice Coast of India that has a recipe for an amazing fish curry made with green mango. (That may not be the exact name of the book – I’m feeling too lazy to go upstairs and check – but it’s pretty close.)

    Oh, they call them “custard apples” in Kerala, too.

  • David

    Where can I buy Soursop in the Bay Area?

  • Mervyn Alexander

    The green mango is the same fruit as the ripe mango its not a ‘cousin’ i.e. not a different fruit.The rose apple is also known as the ‘pomerac’in Trinidad and Tobago.I am not sure of the spelling.

  • Escoed52

    Rambutan, I used to eat this all the time when i could find it.  Back in the day when i was stationed in Nam.  Do they sell it anywhere in the states?   I’d like to eat it again?