On the chalkboard in the front of the classroom the young English teacher printed the words:
There are many fruits in Thailand. Mangoes are sweet. Green mangoes are sour. Yellow papayas are sweet. King of Thai fruits is durian. Queen of Thai fruits is mangosteen.
I sat in the back of the class, I was just an observer, and I wasn’t going to quibble over the lack of the as a definitive article. These were 10 year olds. The kids recited these sentences as they took turns looking over their shoulders to stare at me, the strange foreigner.
Right now the King and Queen are in peak season here in southern Thailand, as are a few other fruits eaten throughout Southeast Asia.
Durian (tuk-riian) is native to the Malay Peninsula and Indonesia. The fruit is typically oblong and can be over 12” long and 6” wide. It’s covered in a pretty formidable, armored shell. It is likely the most debated fruit in the world; people either love it or hate it. Some people think it has a sweet smell; others think it outright stinks. I’m in this latter camp. You know when there’s a durian around. Some say that when eaten the texture is like custard. I’ll give them that, but the taste—to me—was so disagreeable that I didn’t care what the texture was. I thought the odious smell was one of onion marinated in a little bit of turpentine. In addition to the fresh stuff, I’ve tried durian chips, they’re not as off-putting, and I hear that durian ice cream is worth seeking out. Durian contains tryptophan, just like turkey, and can help you sleep. I know I’ll try the durian again. Someday. But I think I’ll wait until next season, after the air clears.
The mangosteen (mang-kut) is native to the Indonesian islands with Thailand now leading in its cultivation. The Queen of Thai fruits is much, much smaller than the King, about the size of a baseball and is a brownish-purple color with hard, leathery skin. When you slice through the exterior you’ll find beautiful red flesh surrounding white endocarp encasing the seeds. This white layer around the seeds is the edible part of the fruit. The taste here is sweet with a touch of tang, almost citrusy. There’s an initial pucker, but it’s easily and quickly overtaken by the mangosteen’s inherent sweetness. I’m still learning the subtleties of choosing ripe fruit. With mangosteens I need to make sure the outside skin is not too hard and desiccated. If it’s still a little pliable, squeezable, it’ll be ripe enough.
My landlady lives kitty-corner from my house. She has a nice corner lot with some lovely trees, shrubs and flowers buffering her front patio from the road, and from a direct view of me. Immediately adjacent the road sits a rambutan tree. A what, you ask? Rambutan (ngaw). Again another native to Malaysia this is a small, hairy fruit about the size of a plum or golf ball. In the Malay language rambut means hair. It looks scarier than it really is. Once you crack open the red skin, you can do this easily with your fingers, there’s a translucent white flesh enveloping the seed inside. The rambutan is now cultivated in much of the world’s tropical areas and has become Hawaii’s #3 tropical fruit. It is closely related to the longan and the lychee. Interestingly the fruits will only ripen on the tree. They do not produce a chemical ripening agent for early harvesting like many familiar fruits do.
My landlady still plies me with food every now and again. I wish she were more consistent so I knew when the food was coming. One Saturday I went to the market and bought a collection of fruits to last me a few days, the usuals: bananas, mangos, a small pineapple. When I got home she brought over a huge chunk of jackfruit. Jackfruits (ka-nun) look similar to the well-armored durian, but are much larger, some getting up to 80 pounds. These enormous fruits originated in India. The piece my landlady gave me probably weighed 5 to 6 pounds. It’s a sweet fruit, with a taste that some folks say reminds them of Juicy Fruit gum. It takes some work to get to the edible fruit. Once the full-figured fruit is cut into manageable chunks, the fibrous tendons surrounding the flesh and seeds need to be stripped away. I had seen my first host mother do this and knew what I was eventually aiming for. The flesh is very sticky and even with frequent soap and water washing my hands remained tacky for a long time after enjoying the fruit.
I’m still experimenting with the fruit here. Each time I visit the market on weekends I walk back and forth among the fruit sellers, ogling the strange fruit, reflecting on what I may be missing. I idle in front of the familiar fruit as well, wondering if I’ll spy a different variety and discover a new taste, a new adventure, a new favorite.