Fruits of Southeast Asia

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

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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.

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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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