Eating Thai fruit takes serious effort but offers a sublime reward

BANGKOK – All over Bangkok, juices run down chins, run down arms and splash on city sidewalks.

It’s peak fruit season in Thailand, when rising mercury concentrates sugars in the tropical bounty native to Southeast Asia.

The fruits of the region are not like the others. There is a fruit wrapped in thorny armor that smells of deep, damp rot. There is a fruit that emits a sticky sap when peeled and another that stains nails purple for those who crave its luscious flesh.

And there is rambutan, which means “hairy thing” in Malay. With its crimson skin dotted with green feelers, the egg-sized fruit bears more than a fleeting resemblance to a coronavirus. This is delicious.

With the implementation of travel bans in the event of a pandemic, tourism, Thailand’s economic mainstay, has been beaten. The country of 70 million people has had to rely even more on exports of its agricultural products, and a national fruit lobby group predicts that overseas fruit shipments will increase by at least 10% this year, despite the coronavirus.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha called Thailand “the great power of the fruit”. Last year, the country ranked sixth among the world’s fruit exporters.

But most of the fruit is exported to Thailand’s regional neighbors, with China being its biggest customer. The prospects for expansion into large Western markets like the United States may be attractive, but face daunting obstacles.

Less than 3 percent of Thai fruit was exported to the United States. Distance is an issue, as are concerns about fruit flies accompanying imports. But the main reason for this low number may be that the native fruits of Southeast Asia have what Fuchsia Dunlop, a British author of Chinese cookbooks, calls a high “wrestling factor”.

Many of the fruits of the region require a serious commitment to eating: laborious peeling, careful chewing, and frequent spitting of seeds to which the meat stubbornly adheres.

Nibbling during office hours on a langsat, a wise cousin of a lychee with skin oozing some kind of natural super glue, is submitting to sticky fingers and sticky keyboards. Soap doesn’t help.

The meat is fragrant but each bite is heavy, lest the teeth accidentally penetrate the bitter seeds. Langsat is worth it, but only fair.

Unlike easily ripping a banana, dissecting a jackfruit involves cutting through a shredded sheath and then painstakingly pulling off the rubbery polyps that taste like overripe Juicy Fruit gum.

The process can take an afternoon, and there are fruit vendors whose careers are dedicated to peeling jackfruit – a single specimen can weigh up to 120 pounds – and other complicated fruits.

At Talad Thai, Bangkok’s largest fruit wholesale market and Southeast Asia’s largest, there’s an entire building dedicated to citrus and a gym-sized section just for mango, which there is there are over 200 varieties in Thailand.

The fruits of Talad Thai are often transported and peeled by migrants from Cambodia or neighboring Myanmar.

“I was so poor I had to look for work in Thailand,” said Sing Dy, who unloaded a truckload of fruit as sweat soaked his coronavirus mask.

She has not seen her children in Cambodia for six months due to the pandemic travel ban, but she still sends most of her $ 20 a day salary home.

Each year, regional newspapers report various jackfruit-related deaths, primarily involving one person lingering under a tree with fruit above it. In May, a man in southern India was injured by a fall from a jackfruit tree and had to undergo spinal surgery, only to find in hospital that he also had the coronavirus. (He recovered.)

In terms of clairvoyance, rambutan jousts with dragon fruit, a neon pink mini soccer ball covered in acid green tendrils. For some, the experience of eating a dragon fruit, which grows on a cactus native to South America, is a bummer after all that dazzling packaging: it’s a bland porridge with tiny seeds that may require silk. tooth to dislodge.

Thais tend to view the sweeter fruits as a canvas for the fermented and spicy flavors that dominate the country’s cuisine. For example, guavas, pink apples and pomelo, the tallest citrus fruits in the world, are often served with a chili, salt and sugar dip to liven up the experience. The tangy fruits, like green mangoes, are balanced with a sweet condiment that includes fish sauce, dried shrimp, and shallots.

If someone’s fingernails are dyed purple at the ends, that likely betrays a preference for mangosteen, a palm-sized orb that looks like an extra in a Super Mario Bros. video game. Underneath its woody rind are juicy segments that strike a Socratic balance between sweet and sour.

Even a peach has nothing on a mangosteen when it’s perfect, but the mangosteen is rarely perfect. Many are afflicted with a burn that dulls the white flesh an ugly mustard tint. It’s impossible to know which fruit is stained until you peel it, so eating a bunch of mangosteen is an exercise in disappointment.

The salak is also called the snakeskin fruit because its shell is unmistakably reptilian. Inside is a not quite crunchy flesh that, like so many fruits native to Southeast Asia, oscillates between delectable and rotten. Some scientists have theorized that the scent attracts rainforest primates, whose consumption and dispersal of the seeds help the fruit to take root for another generation.

The most infamous fruit that stinks of death is durian. Buildings and taxis in Thailand have signs prohibiting durian alongside the no smoking signs.

The flavor of durian elicits passionate and polarizing responses, with few indifferent to the fruit’s attraction or repulsion.

On the outside, the durian looks like a medieval torture device. Nestled inside the prickly shell are kidney-shaped custard lobes. The flavor is somewhere between an off-peak Gorgonzola and a creme caramel, with a hint of skunk.

Orangutans love durian. In Indonesia, where expanding oil palm plantations have destroyed the natural habitat of monkeys, orangutans sometimes attack fruit orchards for their livelihood. The farmers responded by shooting them.

Even if the smell could be put aside – which is frankly impossible – durian would likely still have the highest intake factor among endemic Southeast Asian fruits. Thai fruit exports are mainly destined for China, where consumers tend to be more willing to work for their meals.

The biggest supporters of the durian have little hope that it will ever capture the American market as the kiwi charmed Americans in the 1970s, when marketers renamed the Chinese gooseberry after the national bird of New Zealand. It helps that the kiwi, with its fluffy skin, is cute and easy to eat.

While some of the native Southeast Asian fruits are available in specialty markets in the United States, the flavors lack the vibrancy of home-grown ones, aficionados insist.

Ubolwan Wongchotsathit is a second-generation fruit mogul, and she used to fly her durian as far as Dubai and Melbourne before the pandemic forced her to use land and sea routes instead.

“Americans say they hate the smell of durian,” she says. “I don’t understand. It’s sweet love.

Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting.

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