Milan, 14 July 2015

In our short time in Thailand, my wife and I have had the pleasure of trying many wonderful tropical fruits. Some are now known enough in Europe to regularly populate the supermarket shelves: bananas of course, coconuts too, and more recently mangoesimage



and dragon fruit


Others, though known to Europeans – primarily through tourism to SE Asia – have not (yet) made it into our supermarkets: the mangosteen, for instance


or the rambutan


both of which I’ve written about earlier, or the durian, that horribly smelly fruit which I’ve also had a rant about in the same post and which I hope never reaches our supermarkets.


And then there are fruits which, as far as I can tell, are quite unknown in Europe. There’s the sala, a fruit about as large as an apricot, which has a ruddy-brown brittle skin covered in sharp scales (these earn it its English name of snake fruit). The white flesh consists of three lobes, rather like the mangosteen, each of which contains a seed. It has a sweet taste with astringent overtones.


Or there’s the sathon, which from a distance looks like a large yellow apple except that the rind has a matt, velvety look to it and which, when split open, is found to house several seeds encased in a very sweet sticky white goo that itself is ensconced in a yellow, very sour flesh: it is the interplay of sweet and sour as you scoop all this out that makes this fruit so interesting.


Or what about the lamyai (longan in China)? It’s the “other lychee”. Longans come in big bunches. When you shuck the light brown shell, you find something that looks, and tastes, very much like a lychee.


We haven’t been through a full annual cycle yet in Thailand, so maybe a few more fruits unknown to us will pop up in the local markets over the coming months.

I have always been more than ready to try strange, exotic fruits, which proudly affirm that even in this era of globalization the world can still offer us the excitement of discovering new foodstuffs in the corner of some foreign land. But then, on a recent trip to Budapest to give my annual training course, I experienced the old rather than the new. I found a couple of raspberries in my salad at dinner one night and popped them in my mouth … Aah, my friends, that taste … Incomparable … As it coursed through my taste buds to my brain, I found myself in seventh heaven; those soft, velvety beads which, when bitten down on, release that sweetly delicate juice, with a slightly musty aftertaste.


It was as much the memory as the taste which had me floating on clouds. This companion of my youth! I was transported back fifty years, to my French grandmother’s house, to that untidy patch of raspberry bushes which had colonized a corner of her vegetable garden. My cousins and I would sneak over there, despite strict grandmotherly prohibitions, and quickly pop a few into our mouths before tearing off to avoid detection and grandmotherly wrath. Sometimes, just to play with fire, we would also grab in passing a few sprigs of red currants. But that was just boyhood defiance; their acidity did not sit well in our young mouths.

As if this wasn’t enough, the next course of my dinner in Budapest was a dish of braised veal cooked with fennels and fresh apricots. Apricots! As I spooned the slices of the fruit into my mouth, yet another series of sensations coursed through my taste buds and set my nerve synapses afiring. Mmm, that … that … well, that apricoty taste, how else to describe it? Soooo good!


Here too I was transported back in time, to my grandmother’s orchard, which stood next to the vegetable garden, and where she had apricot trees, plum trees, peach trees, pear trees, apple trees. My cousins and I would also raid those trees, keeping a wary eye out for our grandmother, who might come around the corner of the vegetable garden at any moment and be instantly transformed from a gentle old soul into a spitfire, running after us, yelling, and threatening to tell our parents.

As I near retirement, as I start becoming the gentle old soul my grandmother was (most of the time), I realize more and more the truth of Oliver Goldsmith’s dictum (and title of one of his poems) “East, West, home’s best”. After years of globe-trotting, of experiencing the exotic splendours of distant lands, I feel ever more strongly with every passing month the pull of home, that part of the world which is in my genes, where there are seasons of moderate heat and moderate cold, where I understand the languages, where the foodstuffs are old friends and not experiences. No offense, but at the end of the day I prefer to be eating raspberries and apricots rather than salas and sathons.


Mango: http://www.mangomaven.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/manilla1.jpg (in http://www.mangomaven.com/tasty-tasty-tasty/)
Pomelo: http://previews.123rf.com/images/norgal/norgal1208/norgal120800007/14768629-Green-pomelo-fruit-on-white-Backgorund-Stock-Photo.jpg (in http://it.123rf.com/archivio-fotografico/pomelo.html)
Dragon fruit: http://24.media.tumblr.com/eb843c799502fd0235accc3efe4f3bd2/tumblr_mh0aj3T6Yn1qg5xklo1_r1_1280.gif (in https://theotheri.wordpress.com/2014/09/16/dragon-fruit/)
Mangosteen: http://www.healthyfig.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/purple-mangosteen.jpg (in http://www.healthyfig.com/purple-mangosteen/)
Rambutan: http://www.meteoweb.eu/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/RAMBUTAN.jpg (in http://www.meteoweb.eu/2014/06/rambutan-frutto-tropicale-dal-fascino-esotico-simile-ad-piccolo-riccio-mare-giallo-acceso-rosso/289011/)
Durian: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/71z16SFzrbL._SL1100_.jpg (in http://steven-universe.wikia.com/wiki/Durian_Juice)
Longan: https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/vqe9GQ0UOugxvtYh4V5Fd5kLV-BdriZsJKb1gb2spvxyCwT0rk1u7U75gXjApDU9598LyLC4_Wnzu8__4ygBcwnDHisDpNzj5_dLq82bRHMZ1ADGdb-i67pBSkQeiXso4Q (in http://share.psu.ac.th/blog/general-sarabun/38151)
Sala: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salak#/media/File:Salak_(Salacca_zalacca),_2015-05-17.jpg (in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salak)
Sathon: http://previews.123rf.com/images/panda3800/panda38001205/panda3800120500019/13601415-Santol-fruit-isolated-on-white-background-Stock-Photo-santol.jpg (in https://www.123rf.com/photo_13601415_santol-fruit-isolated-on-white-background.html)
Raspberry: http://www.viper-vapor.com/uploads/4/2/9/8/42981083/s165799847266067809_p13_i1_w1000.jpeg (in http://www.viper-vapor.com/store/p13/RASPBERRY.html)
Apricot: http://sabzi.pk/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Apricot3.jpg (in http://sabzi.pk/shop/fruits/apricot/)



Beijing, 11 December 2013

I’ve just come back to China from a business trip abroad. As is my habit on these trips, I picked up whatever English-language newspapers were being proffered at the plane door. On the return leg, I found myself with the International New York Times (until recently the International Herald Tribune). Once we had taken off, I settled into my usual reading routine, which is to start with the cartoons, have a stab at the Sudoku and sometimes the crossword (depending on how easy it is), then meander through the rest of the newspaper, settling on whatever articles catch my eye. In this particular edition, I came across an article entitled “Letting the Nose Lead the Way”, about the durian. The article was a paean to the durian, the author an unashamed fan. So much of a fan that I decided to write this post in protest and to right the balance.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the durian, this is it:

durian on tree

It is a tropical fruit common throughout Southeast Asia and southern China. A huge fruit which can weigh up to three kilogrammes and whose husk is covered with large nasty spikes. Which two facts together lead some to wear safety helmets if they venture into durian orchards when the fruit is ripe and ready to fall. I kid you not:

safety helmets under durian trees

When you split open the husk you find these squishy pods inside

durian inside

Durian inside-2

which smell and taste absolutely … disgusting.

The first – and last – time I ate durian was in Malaysia in the mid-1990s. I was with a Moroccan colleague. It was the first time for both of us in the country. We were with a third colleague, an Italian, who had been many times to Malaysia. We were driving through some village when he suddenly ordered the driver to stop and us to get out. We were confronted by a roadside vendor behind a pile of these large spiky fruits. We absolutely had to try one, our Italian colleague declared, it was rightly called the king of fruits. The vendor split open the husk, and a nauseous smell hit us.  We hesitated, but he urged us on; get beyond the smell, he cried, the taste is sublime. And all my life I will remember the face of my Moroccan colleague as he bit into that yellow guck, a look of pure horror and utter revulsion. A look which was mirrored in my face as I too bit into the guck. This photo, of a poor kid who has just tried durian for the first time in Indonesia, sums up the experience well.


Never, ever, again.

You don’t have to open the husk to get the smell. It spreads around the unopened fruit like a sickening miasma. So strong is the smell that durians are often prohibited from enclosed public spaces.  I disovered this in Singapore after my trip to Malaysia, where there were prominent signs banning durian from the subway system.


The long list of things you can’t do in Singapore has now become something of a joke, but the ban of durians on the subway is one which I completely and heartily approve of.

If this had been my only experience with tropical fruit in Malaysia, I would have left the country with a permanently bad impression. Luckily, though, my Italian colleague redeemed himself by introducing us to three other tropical fruits (or froo-wits as he called them): the jackfruit, the mangosteen, and the rambutan.

The jackfruit looks uncannily like the durian. The fruit is also large – huge, sometimes – and has a spiky exterior, although nothing like as spiky as the durian

Jacfruit at Nunem

The pods inside are also yellow and squishy

jackfruit inside

jackfruit pulp

But the taste is a universe away from the durian: a delicate sweetness which lingers in the mouth and urges you on to take the next morsel.

As for the mangosteen, ah, what a fruit! From the outside, it looks something like a large plum but with a hard rind.

Mangosteen on tree

When you crack open the rind, you find that it harbours soft, dazzlingly white segments

mangosteen inside-3

which literally taste divine, something surely that was invented by nature only for the gods to eat: juicy, supremely sweet, yet with an acid overtone that holds the sweetness in check, preventing it from becoming cloying.

And finally the rambutan, a wonderfully hairy looking fruit (reminding me always of a certain part of the male anatomy), growing in clusters on the tree

rambutan on tree

When the rind is opened, a glistening small white globe is uncovered

rambutan inside-2

with a taste very much like fresh lychee; not surprising, since the two are relatives. I smuggled a batch of rambutans back to my wife (I’m sure I was not allowed to import them), and they tasted as good at our kitchen table in Italy as they had in the market in Malaysia.

There comes a time of year, in autumn, when street vendors in Beijing begin to sell durian. When that sickening smell wafts over me again, I make a wide detour and occupy my mind’s eye, nose and mouth with the wonders of jackfruit, mangosteen and rambutan.


Durian on tree: http://bizzarrobazar.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/cd81e7e027f4cae2c94959b42b6797f6.jpg [in http://bizzarrobazar.com/tag/durian/%5D
Safety helmets under the durian tree: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_fVVBfNE7dsI/SBawmCQGfsI/AAAAAAAAAdA/T1oJ-Rm8IfE/s400/109-0970_IMG.JPG [in http://dusundurian2002.blogspot.com/%5D
Durian inside: http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3782/9372567678_1077e89202_b.jpg [in http://www.sgfoodonfoot.com/2013/07/rws-invites-durian-fest-2013.html%5D
Durian inside-2: http://hype.my/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Durian.jpg [in http://hype.my/2013/05/durian-pizza-anyone/%5D
Kid feeling sick after eating durian: http://www.indoboom.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Kids-Feel-Sick-After-Eating-Durian.jpg [in http://www.indoboom.com/2013/videos/americans-taste-durian-for-the-first-time-indonesian-reactions.html%5D
No Durians-Singapore: http://dodontdontdo.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/singapore_several_2011_transtation.png [in http://dodontdontdo.wordpress.com/2011/05/20/no-bombs-no-no-durians/%5D
Jackfruit tree: http://www.parrikar.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/jackfruit-tree-nundem-goa.jpg [in http://www.parrikar.com/blog/2012/01/16/jackfruit/%5D
Jackfruit inside: http://www.envygfx.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/jackfruit-picture-kerala.jpg [in http://www.envygfx.com/yellow-flowers/jackfruit-picture-kerala.html
Jackfruit pulp: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-eJb31wThfh8/TzQyJZbTraI/AAAAAAAABlY/8xRgGyoUPNI/s1600/jackfruit+pulp.jpg [in http://www.skinny-vegan-food.com/2012/02/what-is-jackfruit.html#.UqcyWielrnQ%5D
Mangosteen on tree: http://0.tqn.com/d/treesandshrubs/1/0/K/3/-/-/MangosteenFlickrgoosmurf.jpg [in http://treesandshrubs.about.com/od/fruitsnuts/ig/Tropical-Fruit-Photo-Gallery/Mangosteen.htm%5D
Mangosteen inside: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_B2KRqsfacXY/TPauKjqVJ2I/AAAAAAAAAD8/47vgd8Q51Dg/s1600/Fruit+%25282%2529.jpg [in http://mastryone.blogspot.com/2010/12/mangosteen-juice.html%5D
Rambutan on tree: http://www.panoramicfruit.com/P1000481Copy2cropped.jpg [in http://imagejuicy.com/images/fruits/d/durian/5/%5D
Rambutan inside: http://www.baldorfood.com/media/catalog/product/cache/1/image/9df78eab33525d08d6e5fb8d27136e95/r/a/rambutan.jpg [in http://www.baldorfood.com/rambutan%5D