37. A Taste of the Tropics

Some of Vietnam’s finest fruits are nearly unknown in the West. Dragonfruit, mangosteen, sugar apple and rambutan will please nearly every palate.

Dragonfruit is stacked high at a street market in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 9. (JGA photo)

The first time I beheld a pitahaya, I remember thinking: How curious! It certainly didn’t appear to be anything edible. It looked less like a fruit than some strange small beast, its rosy skin blemished by greenish extrusions curling like small tails or the nubs of premature limbs.

Today the dragonfruit, as the pitahaya is more widely known, is one of my favorite things to eat. Although this cactus fruit is native to Central and northern South America, it is widely cultivated throughout Southeast Asia — especially in Vietnam, where it is called thanh long.

One of the great joys of spending time in an unfamiliar part of the world is discovering its unique foods. Tropical fruits, it seems, are particularly memorable. No matter where I travel in Vietnam, the colors and textures found in the ubiquitous fruit stalls and public markets, and the distinctive aromas that emanate from them, inevitably add to the pleasure of the experience. Even better, they are a mere prelude to the taste of what I have discovered.

Not all of the fruits sold at the markets here are native to Southeast Asia. A majority would be instantly recognizable to visitors from North America or Europe. Bananas, pineapples, mangos, papayas, pomelo (Chinese grapefruit), lilikoi (passion fruit) and coconuts are all grown in Vietnam. So are oranges (which when ripe are green, not orange) and such melons as watermelons and canteloupe. And there are some popular imports from temperate climate zones, including apples, pears, peaches and grapes.

Like the infamous durian, two of my favorite local fruits are often barred from hotels. But it’s not an unpleasant odor that nixes the dragonfruit and the mangosteen. It’s because their can stain the hotel’s soft goods.

The seed-speckled flesh of the dragonfruit can be either deep red or white. (JGA photo)

Dragonfruit (thanh long)

Yes, one of these culprits is the mystical dragonfruit. Its soft, leathery skin is either red, with red or purple flesh inside, or pink, with white flesh. (There’s also a yellow-skinned pitahaya, with white flesh, in the Americas, but I haven’t seen it in Vietnam.)

An average dragonfruit weights 300 to 400 grams — less than a pound. The skin, a couple of centimeters (3/4 inch) thick, is tender and easy to slice. Quarter and peel it, but be careful not to wipe your hands on anything but a napkin or towel: Its hue comes from betanin, the same natural dye that colors beets and Swiss chard.

The fruit is laced with small, black, crunchy seeds, like a kiwifruit. But when you bite in, you don’t even know they are there. Dragonfruit is slightly crunchy and mildly sweet, the red variety slightly more than the white. I’ve heard the flavor compared to a cross between a kiwi and a pear; I find it more similar to its cousin, the prickly pear.

It is delicious in fruit salads and smoothies, blended with such other fruits as papaya and lichee. If I were in North America, I would implore my favorite Mexican cantina owner to make me a dragonfruit margarita. In fact, I think I’ll do that for myself!

Ripe mangosteens are about the size of tangerines or tomatoes, and have a thick purple skin. (JGA photo)

Mangosteen (măng cụt)

The mangosteen, no relation to the mango, will also leave a permanent purple stain on your best T-shirt. That’s from the thick rind, so even though you may be impatient to taste the fruit, be careful as you prepare to devour it.

As it’s about the size of a tangerine or an average everyday tomato, I can hold a mangosteen in one hand and squeeze it until the shell splits. But that’s a good way to make a mess. It’s better to slice it carefully around its waistline and gently lift the lower half of the rind away.

The sweet, segmented fruit of the mangosteen has a flavor similar to the raspberry. (JGA photo)

In either case, you’re left with five juicy, ivory-hued segments, about the size of those in a Mandarin orange. I find the sweet, tangy flavor similar to that of the raspberry, only creamier. Each delicate segment surrounds a couple of almond-sized seeds of such thin fabric that they can often be eaten along with the pulp.

Native to Southeast Asia, the mangosteen grows throughout the year on a tree that stands between 6 and 24 meters (20 and 80 feet) tall. Medieval Chinese, who gave it its common name (mang-chi-shih), often paired it with durian because its “cooling” qualities balanced the “heating” characteristics of the larger fruit.

The sugar apple, or sweetsop, is a transplanted native of Latin America and the West Indies. (JGA photo)

Sugar Apple (táo đường)

The grayish-green skin of the sugar apple, or sweetsop, reminds me of a reptile — a lizard, perhaps, or a small crocodile. But the heart-shaped fruit, about the size of a large red apple, bears a taste treat quite opposite that.

Native to Latin America and the West Indies, carried to Asia by 17th-century Spanish traders in the Philippines, the sugar apple is now one of Vietnam’s most popular fruits. A close relative of the Americas’ cherimoya or “custard apple,” it grows seasonally on a shrubby tree.

It’s unmistakeable in the market stalls. The scaly rind is thick, a medley of knobby segments, but surprisingly fragile. When ripe, it tends to fall apart, making it a snap to peel.

Custard-like in flavor, the sugar apple has a handful of seeds embedded in its flesh. (JGA photo)

Inside, the white flesh is sweet and creamy, with a custard-like flavor. There may be two to three dozen hard, black seeds immersed in the pulp; standard practice is to spit them out as you eat.

One of my close Vietnamese friends insists that the Thai variety, so labeled in fruit stands, is sweeter than that grown in Vietnam. She also noted that Taiwan has developed a sweetsop hybrid with a pineapple flavor.

Depending upon its degree of ripeness, the rambutan is a red-colored nut with “messy hair.” (JGA photo)

Rambutan (chôm chôm)

The Vietnamese name for this nut-like fruit, chôm chôm, literally means “messy hair.” And that’s just what it looks like, if you happen to have flaming red hair. Unlike its cousins, the less flamboyant lychee and longan, the ripe fruit has a reddish pod the size of a ping-pong ball, covered with herbaceous spines or “hairs.”

Rambutan trees reach up to 20 meters (65 feet) in height and bear fruit twice a year. The fruits grow in loose clusters of 10 to 20 pods. Each shell carries a single fruit surrounding a large seed; these seeds may be cooked and eaten, but they are commonly disposed of, in favor of the flesh of the fruit.

That watery flesh is whitish or translucent. Its sweet, mildly acidic flavor and jelly-like texture make one think of grapes. Compared to lychee, it is sweeter, less floral and a bit more tart, like a strawberry.

Rambutan and mangosteen take center stage in the public market in the town of Hoi An. (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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