I’m usually the champion of buying local, seasonal produce, but in the depths of winter, when the choices are pretty slim (there are only so many apples, pears and mandarins a boy can eat) I allow myself to clock up a few extra food miles and stray into the rather beguiling territory of imported tropical fruit.
I know, how unfashionably unethical of me. Well, if I cared to justify my position, I’d reason that it was ok because the food miles are offset by all the fruit, vegetables and eggs I produce in my garden. So what’s your excuse?
Anyway, until recently, fresh (a pretty relative term when applied to imported food) tropical fruit in New Zealand meant mangoes (often of the under-ripe, tasteless Peruvian and Mexican kind); papaya (dependable enough); pineapple (highly variable); and coconuts (good for church fetes). So a bit of a mixed bag really.
However, that was then. Since 2005, thanks to the diplomatic wiles of Labours’ Jim Sutton the-then Trade Negotiations Minister, New Zealand has practised a Closer Economic Partnership – a free-trade agreement of sorts – with Thailand. Now usually my reactionary, liberal leanings compel me to object to free-trade agreements, but in this case, I just couldn’t be happier.
I have no idea what we flog off to Thailand – I dread to think actually – but the most obvious benefit to anyone motivated by food is fabulous tropical fruit. Thailand is, you see, one of the biggest exporters of tropical fruit (exceptionally good tropical fruit) in the world. Unlike the offerings of many of their competitors, such as Hawaii and Australia (where the emphasis is on good looks and long shelf life) Thai fruit is all about the flavour. It just so happens that it looks great too.
The Thai people are famously fussy about their fruit. It’s a big part of the Thai diet (the preferred dessert of most Thais) and they will accept nothing less than perfection. This attitude is certainly reflected, if not amplified, in the produce reaching our shores. Take mangosteen, for example, just about my favourite fruit in the world. I’ve eaten a lot of this fruit overseas and have developed a fair idea about what constitutes a good mangosteen. Well, surprising as it may seem, the imported mangosteen I’ve been buying in Auckland lately are a good deal better than most I’ve eaten abroad (I think of this as akin to our best lamb only reaching the export market). It’s pretty standard that imported fruit looks great, but texture and flavour often disappoint (think imported Californian stone fruit). Not so with these mangosteen. They’re a truly world class fruit.
But mangosteen are just one of the succulent pleasures coming to us from old Siam; lychee, longan, mangoes, fresh durian and young coconut can all be found locally, if you know when and where to look, and they’re at their best during our gloomy southern winter – just when our taste buds desperately need a little excitement.
I’m a bit of fruit geek (yes there such a thing, check out http://www.cloudforest.com/cafe/ )so I’ve gone out of my way over the years to try most of these fruit both in my mouth and in my garden , but to many New Zealanders these will be quite unfamiliar, and in at least one case, rather intimidating territory. So I’d like to take moment to impress upon you the many virtues of my favourite tropical fruit.
Most of us at least know these as tinned fruit. They are, along with peaches, one of the few fruits that actually survive the canning process with some of their dignity intact. But as good as they are, canned lychees are but a shadow of their former fresh selves.
Of all the fruits described here, fresh lychees are the most likely to appear in your supermarket. With their gorgeous rosy flavour and juicy, meaty texture, it’s easy to see why they’re a so revered throughout much of Asia and increasingly the rest of the world. They’re dangerously more-ish popped out their crimson leather skins and eaten as is, but also figure into some damn fine savoury dishes. Try a handful thrown into a fiery Thai red curry with prawns or duck. Too good for words.
Rumour has it that lychee trees will fruit outdoors in New Zealand and a few of us local fruit-anoraks are expectantly nurturing seedlings, so why not join the club and give it a whirl. Of course if you manage to get one fruiting before us we’ll have to kill you.
Keep an eye out for the jumbo sized, soft skinned Emperor lychees: by far the best of a very good bunch.
Looking at a glance a bit like a pale, unshelled macadamia nut, longan are a very juicy, super-sweet relative of the lychee. Like their better-known cousin, they pop put of the skin and into the mouth with the greatest of ease. Although lacking the lovely Turkish Delight notes of lychee, they still have a pleasing muskiness. Dried longans are a popular snack in China but bear little resemblance to the fresh fruit, or food for that matter if you ask me.
Longan are best eaten as is, perhaps as a mystery guest in a fruit salad for friends.
A fruit that is both revered and reviled, depending on who you ask. Personally I hold to former persuasion – it’s easily among my favourite foods, on par with white truffles, foie gras and well-aged Parmigiano Reggiano. The funny thing is, durian shouldn’t taste good at all. In fact I’d predict that the first time you come anywhere near fresh durian you’ll be almost physically repelled by the pungent, open-sewer like odour. If you happen to find the courage to taste the stuff, you’re bound to be appalled, if not violently ill. It’s sweet but savoury, fragrant but pungent, and warming like whiskey, with an unmistakable undertone of onion. Not a bit like you understand good food to be. But for some unfathomable reason, it draws you back in. Next time you’ll notice some good beyond the horror – the smooth, creamy texture, the undertones of banana, pineapple, maple syrup and … well, durian. From then on in its pure love, obsession, infatuation, lust. Against all odds it’s utterly addictive.
It’s not just humans who enjoy durian either. Orang-utans have a sixth sense for the fruit; they can detect a ripe specimen from kilometres away and will happily cut their finger to ribbons tearing through the viciously spiky rind.
Fresh durian is available in New Zealand (seasonally) but costs a bomb. Frozen segments or whole fruit can be found at most Asian supermarkets year-round and are an affordable alternative. A very good introduction to durian comes by way of ice cream. I use the very easy recipe from Sri Owens’ excellent book Indonesian Food. I defy anyone – who gets past the initial olfactory assault – to resist total addiction to durian.
Ah, the mangosteen. Known in my house as the oh-my-god fruit, on account of the rather AO sounds made while eating them, and described by other seemingly-rational people as the Queen of Fruits. Hyperbolic and subjective though all this may be, make no mistake: the mangosteen really is something special. Looking a little bit like a dusky purple persimmon, although this resemblance is only superficial, the mangosteen is classic example of not judging a book by its you-know-what. The succulent, pearl-white flesh within the pithy (indelibly staining) rind is exquisitely juicy, heartbreakingly tender, and packs a flavour combining all the best parts of strawberries, grapes, pineapple and citrus with the precision of an expert wine maker.
There is but one way to eat mangosteen: as-is, out of hand and as soon as possible – they’re just too good to leave sitting around.
Traditionally mangosteen and durian are eaten together. Durian heats the body and mangosteen cools it. One is rich and creamy, one is fragrant and refreshing. Yin & yang on a plate.
According to some sources, the mango is the most widely cultivated fruit crop on earth (others say apples), so it’s a crying shame that until very recently the examples that made their way to our shores were such a ho-hum lot. It’s rare to find a truly bad mango. At worst they’re just ‘nice’. But compared to the best Thai mangoes – now thankfully available in New Zealand – even the best of the motley mangoes of Mexico and Peru just don’t rate at all.
The Thais take mangoes very, very seriously. They have developed many of the most revered varieties worldwide (there are hundreds), including the magnificent Nam Doc Mai. This yellow, stretched looking fruit, with its distinctive re-curved ‘body’ (its more than a little reminiscent of the female form) has a rich, musky flavour, a fine, sorbet texture, and a floral, yet alluringly turpentine fragrance, with an almost physical presence. This is the very best mango for eating with Thai sticky rice pudding (Kaow Niaw Mamuang); actually it’s just the very best mango full stop.
I’ve often wondered what all those cannon ball-like coconuts sold in our supermarket are being used for. They obviously have a following because unyieldingly hard and sporadically rancid through they may be, they’re just about the most consistently stocked item in any produce section nationwide. These do however bear little resemblance physically or in terms of flavour and texture to fresh young coconuts. Throughout the tropics just about every market and street corner has a coconut vendor. You place your order, the top of the nut is lopped off with a couple of blows from the ubiquitous machete, and you’re good to go. The flesh of these emerald green, young coconuts is deliciously gelatinous, almost like panna cotta, and the reservoir of water within is gorgeously sweet and nutty. In sweltering tropical heat this is the ultimate thirst quencher – even if you do look like a bit of a tragic tourist cliché in the process.
Until very recently young coconuts were strictly a luxury of the tropical get away. Weighing several kilos each and potentially harbouring all sorts of undesirable entomological stowaways, importation was quite unfeasible. Until that is, some bright spark in Thailand developed a way of lathing the nuts down to a light-weight, hygienic and eminently shippable form; looking oddly like squat, fat candles, these are now available in many supermarket chillers. For me, young coconuts are strictly an au naturale affair, but if you’re feeling extravagant the flesh and water can elevate a humble Thai curry or Malaysian sambal to a dish worthy of a sultan’s palace.
All of these fruit are available – mostly over the winter months – from your nearest Asian supermarket or specialist fruiterer. This might mean a bit of hike to our rural readers, but it’s well worth the effort next time you’re in the big smoke.
Just in case any of you share my enthusiasm for foolishly ambitious food gardening, and fancy trying your hand at growing lychee, mangoes, jack fruit etc, I have included links to my favourite fruit-geek nurseries.