Cambodia for beginners
The country in a nutshell
Fruits in Cambodia
When it comes to fruit, it seems that someone forgot to tell nature that no-one likes a show-off. Such a huge, kaleidoscopic, wild variety of redolent, multi-textural glories is clearly the work of an over-achieving braggart. More than 3,000 fruits have apparently been identified, though we consume only a handful (or three) of them. The fact that nature then uses these spoils of her labour for chucking at our heads on occasion tells me that, no matter how pretty they are, her intentions might not be entirely benign. But they are delicious.
Cambodia’s markets are bursting with tropical fruits, piled high in vibrant shades of red, orange, yellow, green, brown, pink and purple, where sweet scents waft up from the florid skins of the lychees and apples, all part of a bewitching sensorial smorgasbord (had to use that word one day). The best place to go in Siem Reap is the Old Market (Psas Chas) where you’ll find the fruits at the back in the lively food section.
In most markets you’ll find a technicolour array of oranges, apples, watermelons, tamarind, pineapples, limes, grapes, mangoes, bananas, mangosteen, star fruits, lychees, rambutans, pears, durian, jackfruit and the hugely exotic sounding dragonfruit, and those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Oddly enough, you’ll rarely find lemons, and I still haven’t found out why. Most of these fruits are now common at home and need no further explanation, except to say that many Cambodian oranges are not orange but green even when fully ripe; a deliberate ploy to appeal to the Irish no doubt. But for some of the others, here’s what that funny looking thing is all about.
Mango: While almost everyone will have enjoyed a sweet, slippery mango at home, not so many will have tried this fruit in its green, white-fleshed, unripened and sour form. The easiest way to do that is to tuck into a sweet and piquant and highly addictive spicy green mango salad, which is a core dish in Cambodian cooking, and a stand-alone rebuttal to the charge that Cambodian food is dull. Alternatively, try slices of raw green mango dipped in chilli salt for a unique lip-pursing experience.
Jackfruit: The vivid green, knobbledy skin of the jackfruit make this one of my favourite fruits in Cambodia, from a distance. Once opened up, the pale yellow flesh is fibrous, squidgy and slightly soapy, and tastes a little like a blend of apple and banana. Eating them is actually very nice. I find the subsequent belches, which carry strong tones of dodgy goat meat, to be a little unsettling though. Not one for consumption on dates.
Tamarind: Another one for consumption raw or ripened. In the ripened form, you crack open the brittle brown carapace and scrape out the sticky, sweet almost resinous pulp inside and make a delicious mess while you’re at it. Tamarind is a nice option for those who don’t have a sugar tooth as it’s not as cloyingly sweet as other fruits. You can do the same with the raw fruit too, though you will make funnier faces while doing it. It’s awfully sour.
Dragonfruit: The Wonder Bra fruit: if ever a fruit promised so much yet delivered so little, it is the dragonfruit. Dressed in a firm outer layer of exuberant pink or purple offset with flirty green fringes, the dragonfruit is peeled back to reveal grainy white flesh run through with crunchy black seeds. It’s very elegant, but you might as well just stop there. There’s no point in eating a dragonfruit unless your jaw needs exercise. On the upside, it’s very low in calories, like lots of things with absolutely no flavour. [Ed: In the name of balance, I like dragonfruit!]
Cashew apple: Here’s something you probably didn’t know: cashew nuts are not nuts but the seeds of a small kidney shaped fruit that grows attached to another secondary fruit that looks a little like an apple, and tastes a lot like an apple crossed with a pear crossed with a waterfall. The skin of the secondary fruit, the cashew apple, is incredibly soft and squishy, making them difficult to transport, so you may not often see them, but if you do see one try it, especially if you’re thirsty. Stand away from the fruit as you bite.
Mangosteen: This one is the polar opposite of the dragonfruit, but I don’t have a picture unfortunately as they don’t come into season until April. However, if mangosteen were a man, he’d be the dumpy fellow with the terrible haircut that you passed over for a dance a million times and then, oops, one cider too many one night and you’re suddenly discovering that he’s the most amazing lover on the planet. These are squat, dull skinned, child’s fist-sized fruits that look a little like giant purple rabbit turds, with a ridiculous mop of green foliage on their heads. Split one open though and you’ll find inside between five and seven segments of heaven. Soft, sweet and tart, super-juicy and insanely delicious. Buy lots, you won’t be able to stop once you start.
Story by Nicky Sullivan
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