America: Land of the Free, Home of Bland Fruit
If I were asked to pick out the quintessential American fruit, it would probably be the humble apple. And despite growing up in Eastern Washington State—the epicenter of the global apple industry—it wasn’t until I was in college and living in Seattle that I actually crunched into the first good apple in my life. It was actually somewhat tasty and crisp. (And for the record, it was the first Fuji Apple I had ever tasted.) Most of the apples of my youth were shiny, waxy, mealy, tasteless, and of the Red Delicious variety.
But it’s 2013, and almost summer here in Seattle. This also means it’s finally the season where this American Taitai actually allows herself to partake in some of the region’s seasonal summer fruits. And while the fruits of the Pacific NW are relatively tasty when in season, our peak fruit season is only about 2 months out of the year. The local strawberries have just come into season, and the blueberries will be next. The Rainier and Bing cherries have arrived, and will only get better in the next few weeks. And finally, in the next month or two, juicy peaches and stone fruits will finally be in season for about 2-3 weeks.
But sadly, outside of the few precious weeks of summer, our fruit season is extremely short, 2-3 months at most. The rest of the year, we are hard pressed to find edible tasty fruits three seasons out of four—outside of bland apples, pears, and sour, tasteless oranges from California or Florida. And most of these sad little fruits have no taste, other than sour and bland.
So my strategy is to skip eating fruit altogether. Why be disappointed? What’s the point of eating sour, tasteless fruit? This means that I don’t really eat fruit nine months out of the year, and so I try to make up for it by eating more veggies. It’s a result of being spoiled/ruined from living in Asia, and feasting on amazing, taste-bud-bursting fruit on a regular basis.
I guess I’m pining for a taste of Asia and the delicious tropical fruits that are so often and readily available there. I’m reminded of the mango metaphor from the 1992 movie Indochine about 1930s French Indochina (Vietnam.) The narrator and protagonist, Eliane (a single French woman, and owner of a rubber plantation played by Catherine Deneuve) explains to Camille (Eliane’s adopted Vietnamese daughter played by Linh Dan Pham) that she is in fact, Asian not because of her white skin color, but because she eats mangos and doesn’t settle for the bland taste of a mere apple:
“The difference between people is not the skin color, it’s this!” She bites into the mango. “It’s this! The flavor, the fruit. Someone who has bitten into an apple cannot be like me. I am an ‘asiate.’ I am a mango.”
If you understand French or can read Vietnamese subtitles, go to 21:03-22:00 of this video for the scene:
While I don’t like how certain movies tend to romanticize European colonial rule in SE Asia (Indochine does a slightly better job than most, but there are still elements,) I do agree with the general sentiment that Eliane puts forth: taste trumps skin color. In this way, I’m definitely tropical Asian by the taste of the fruit I love to eat. I just can’t get my hands on any of it in the US. (And ironically, I actually don’t like mangoes, which I can buy easily here!)
So here’s my personal inventory of favorite Asian tropical fruits that I’m missing right now. If you happen to live in tropical parts of Asia and can get hold of such fruits, please have an extra helping for me!
Mangosteen: My favorite tropical fruit. The intensely delicious flavor of the white fruit of a fresh purple mangosteen is like nothing else. The legend of this “Queen of Fruit” comes from Queen Victoria offering a reward of 100 pounds sterling to anyone who could deliver to her the fresh fruit. Although this legend can be traced to a 1930 publication by the fruit explorer, David Fairchild, it is not substantiated by any known historical document, yet is probably responsible for the uncommon designation of mangosteen as the “Queen of Fruit.”
Custard Apple/Sugar Apple or Buddah’s Head: Another delicious, very sweet and flavorful fruit that literally tastes like custard. The texture takes some getting used to (a bit sandy, kind of like overripe guava) and the seeds are large and plentiful, but the taste is simply amazing and addictive
Pomelo: Sweet, refreshing, and amazingly juicy. The pulp is literally like a packet of juice. Pomelo is like a huge grapefruit, but much more mild and sweet (no sour bitter aftertaste.) You can find pomelo at the grocery in Asia pre-peeled and sectioned already, so all you have to do is eat it! It makes for an amazingly refreshing beverage and is lovely in salads.
Rose Apple: Crisp, sweet, coolly refreshing and juicy. Once you remove the core, it tastes like crunchy sugar water. The texture is hard to describe (crisp like celery, but much tastier and sweet) and the crunch puts the mere apple to shame. I’ve had the green ones, which are great, but my favorites are the deep purple/red variety.
Kyoho or Japanese Purple Grapes: Holy moley. Can you say taste-bud explosion? More readily available in NE Asia, with the best variety found in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. Each grape is sweet, bursting with intense grape flavor, almost to the point of tasting a little bit alcoholic. I love artificial grape flavoring, and after I had my first Kyoho grape, I realized that artificial grape flavoring is most certainly based on this natural fruit flavor. These huge, deep-purple grapes are of the slip-skin variety. So once you bite into the grape, you can suck out the flesh from the skin and spit it out. The skin is quite sour and not really edible and there are large seeds, but both are easily spit out, leaving you to pop the next grape into your mouth. It’s like eating candy, but really, it’s fruit. Pure joy and deliciousness.
Lychee: You can find some varieties of lychee here in the US, but the huge golf-ball sized ones are only generally found in Asia. Once you peel the red outer rind, you find sweet, slippery white flesh, intense lychee flavor and a large smooth pit. Delicious. The lychee is related to the Rambutan, but I prefer the taste of the lychee more.
Starfruit: Now I have seen a few of these at certain Asian grocery stores, but the ones in Asia are bigger, more yellow, and just taste better. You cross section the fruit into slices, and pop the “stars” into your mouth. Again, the fruit is crispy, juicy and very refreshing. The taste is more mild, but still quite tasty and cooling. Perfect for a summer afternoon.
Now that I’m drooling from all my favorite fruits that I can’t get hold of, I guess I’ll go back to counting down the days till the local peaches arrive at my local market. (6 more weeks!)
Until then, I guess I’ll gorge myself with strawberries and blueberries, while dreaming of mangosteens and Kyoho grapes.