At home, I am generally not a fruit person. If you know me, you would know the following to be true: put a strawberry, watermelon, cantaloupe, or banana in front of me, and I’m likely to bat it away with my fork and eat around it as much as I can. I’ve been this way for life.
In Thailand, though, I am absolutely a fruit person. Put a rambutan, mangosteen, longon, guava, green papaya, mango, pomelo, pineapple, rose apple, custard apple, lychee, sapodilla, or coconut in front of me, and I’m inclined to melt (keep in mind I have left one particular fruit off of this list—and you’ll see why in #6 below). Before last week, I’d only known of guavas, mangos, pineapples, and coconuts in this group; a week later, not only have I tried them all with exuberance and excitement (and fallen in love with quite a few of them). I’m not going to find the same quality at home as I would walking out of a hotel in Phuket, but I’ve already started researching Asian markets within a 50-mile radius of where I live. Now that I’ve tried these Thai delights, I’m a fruit-lover for life.
Of all these decadent delights, though, which truly turned me fruit-fanatic?
1. Mangosteen. This fruit is completely, totally, and 100% not like a mango at all. Flowering on tropical evergreen trees, the mangosteen is a tiny, round, red fruit with a sweet, coconut-like pulp inside. To open it, you need to peel off the thick, dark rind with a sharp knife (though don’t let the red stuff get on your clothes, as you’ll never get it out again).
2. Rambutan. This is an adorable hairy fruit I first saw at the Damnoen Saduak floating market. Nestled among the rest of the smooth, round fruits, this one is covered in spiky green or yellow hair. Inside, it’s full of white flesh that is firm, sweet, and juicy. You’ll also need a sharp knife for this one, as the hairs can be prickly and the skin tough to pry open.
3. Longon. Translated as “dragon eye” because it looks and feels like an eyeball when peeled, this little fruit was brought to Thailand in sacks by Chinese immigrants hundreds of years ago. It’s a small round fruit that grows in bunches. Sweet, thick, and juicy, the best way to eat it is to crack open the shell by pressing on it and then scooping out the fleshy parts with your fingers. Beware, though, that your fingers will be sufficiently sticky afterwards.
4. Pomelo. The pomelo tastes, feels, and looks a lot like a combination of two fruits I love best here at home: the grapefruit and the pomegranate. It’s similarity to a grapefruit comes in its flavor—light, a bit sour, citrusy. To a pomegranante—the seeds. The entire pomelo is made up of little flavor-filled pods that break easily in the mouth. Considered a crisp citrus fruit, here’s something fun about the pomelo: it also holds the record of being the biggest citrus fruit in the world, weighing in at a hefty 2-4 pounds.
5. Rose apple. While the name might lead you to believe otherwise, the rose apple tastes very little like a Red Delicious. The fruit, a fleshy yellow or red berry which is bell shaped, waxy and crisp, tastes far less like an apple and far more like an unripened pear (to my unseasoned palette, of course). It has a crisp, watery texture that almost dissolves once you crunch down on it, but it’s refreshing, light, and pretty.
6. And lastly, the durian: Ah, what fond memories I have of tasting durian. Durian, for those of you who are unfamiliar with this smelly, mushy, odiferous fruit, is not a fruit for everyone. Though it’s considered the “king of fruits” in Southeast Asia, it stinks. Really. Kind of like a combination of cow manure, old gym socks, and rotten eggs. In fact, the odor has led to the fruit’s banishment from certain hotels and public transportation in southeast Asia. If you can get past the smell, though, you will have the culinary experience of a lifetime: the inside of the spiny green-ish yellow fruit is like no fruit I’ve ever tried. It’s thick, creamy, mushy, and almost custard-like. For many Thais, the taste of a durian is about as close to nirvana as it gets.
Whatever your fruit fancy, I’m pretty sure there’s a street vendor out there in Thailand waiting for you. And even if you don’t know the name of what you’re eating, eat it anyway–you never know what your tastebuds will fall in love with.
Story and photographs by Kristin Winet.