Westerner-friendly guide to Asian fruits
I don’t go to Europe much, so when I do go and visit my parents, they usually do everything they can to treat me and make me feel at home, make me feel loved and spoil the living thing out of me. Yes, I’m still a princess. 98% of the time the “treat” involves food, and very often it’s fruits. Tropical fruits! And what I hear my mum say is “I don’t quite know what it is or how to eat it, but I thought you might like it…”
Most times I’m disappointed with the taste (because the fruits ripe in a truck or on a plane), but I think it’s cute that my mum wants to learn more about tropical fruits and how to eat them
This post goes to you, mum. And whoever else needs a repetition, here’s a little fruit bible for your next Asian adventure.
Yup, let’s start with the heavyweight champion. “King of fruits” as they call Durian. Spike’y on the outside, the skin can be hard to break through, with creme-hued or yellowish fruit flesh with a creamy, custardy consistency. If you cut a durian in half, the fruit meat is positioned on both sides of the stem that goes through the middle of the fruit, looking like… thin, elongated lungs!
And on top of that, comes the VERY distinctive, sweet, strong fragrance. Durian might be the king of fruits, it’s definitely the king of smell too.
Countries: Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia (Kampot even has an impressive durian-roundabout!)
Price: DEPENDING ON THE SEASON! Packaged durian-chunks can be as cheap as 3,5 USD, but it really depends on how much you buy and whether it’s durian season.
Sold as: entire fruit, pieces of the fruit wrapped in foil, pure fruit meat in boxes/containers
Watch out: The fruit is smelly, eg. Malaysian hotels forbid bringing durians inside. Neither is the fruit welcome in public transportation. If you bring it back to your accommodation, make sure it won’t bother anyone!
Personal opinion: Not my cup of tea!
That’s the one that looks a bit like lychee inside, but on the outside, it has soft, green, “hairy” spikes on reddish skin. The fruits are small and juicy, with a round, but slightly elongated pit inside. The meat is “transparent”, whitefish, but without a colour per se and the taste is light and sweet.
Countries: Thailand, Indonesia
Price: It can go as low as 0,8 USD for a bound of rambutan branches. Supermarkets tend to higher the price!
Sold as: Rarely comes packaged, because the fruits are protected by the skin. You can buy “branches” of rambutan in bounds.
Watch out: You have to stick in your nail/fingertip into the fruit to open it, if you do it too aggressively, it might splash on you!
Personal opinion: Mmm… Yum yum yum.
Another spikey fella, this one is green or yellowish on the outside, and the spikes are smaller and less sticking than durian’s. Jackfruit meat is small yellow “pockets” that hold one round seed inside of every “pocket”. The smell is also quite distinctive, however, less “in your nose” than durian’s, and jackfruit has a bubble-gum alike taste. It’s sweet and not so juicy. It’s very easy to tell whether the fruit’s gone bad because you’ll feel a sliminess around the fruit pieces and the fragrance will be much more acidic, kind of “sour”. There are a lot of strings in between the fruit meat pieces (natural seat-belts for your fruit chunks), so make sure you eat the ripe fruit meat, not the unripe “seat-belt” that hold the fruit-pockets together.
Countries: Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Hong Kong
Price: Packaged jackfruit-chunks can be as cheap as 1 USD. In Thailand, a common price is 80 B/kg (counted with skin).
Sold as: entire fruit, pieces of the fruit wrapped in foil, pure fruit meat in boxes/containers (either pitted os still with sees)
Watch out: The fruit has a sticky substance inside! If you cut the fruit yourself or if you buy a chunk still with skin and some of the inner inedible fruit “membrane”, prepare to get sticky. Also, Balinese people claim too much jackfruit gives you stomach problems - I’m not complaining, but check in with yourself!
Personal opinion: I could live of Jackfruit. Full stop.
Isn’t this an obvious one? Nope! The variety of bananas in Asia will surprise you. And whereas I’m not going to cover all the different types of bananas, I’ll give a quick explanation.
Finger-bananas: small in size, very sweet. They’re ripe when their skin is yellow. The consistency is soft, and shouldn’t be starchy!
“Milk”-bananas: I keep calling them that, because that’s a direct translation from Cantonese, as someone once told me. “Milk”-bananas are shorter and thicker than African, “regular” bananas, and they’re more starchy and chewy. They’re ripe when the skin is yellow.
Indonesian green banana: Yup! these guys are ready to be consumed when they’re green. Do not worry, if in the local markets someone is trying to sell you green bananas. Trust the seller, they know the different sorts! The taste is similar to “regular” African bananas, however, they’re slightly thinner in size.
Red bananas: might be my favourite. The skin is red, the meat is still creamy and soft. They’re slightly thicker than “regular” bananas, with a bit more softness and fragrance and less starchy-ness. Very filling!
… has nothing to do with a mango. It’s a funny mix of a tangerine and a khaki fruit - the fruit meat comes in “boats” like a tangerine, but it has bigger pits like a khaki fruit. The meat, however, is white! On the outside, the thick fruit skin is purple/brownish, and you can recognize mangosteen by a cute little “top” that have, consisting of the stem and sticking-out “leaves”.
Also for this one, you have to stick in your fingertip to break through the skin, and if you do it too hard, you might smash the fruit pulp!
Countries: Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Hong Kong
Price: Depending on the season and the country. In Bali, you can buy a bag of mangosteen with 8 - 10 pieces for around 2,5 USD.
Sold as: Loose fruit, by weight or in bags - always with skin! You open the fruits yourself
Watch out: If the fruits are very hard on the outside, it means they’re gone bad and will be brown and rotten inside!
Personal opinion: Love them! They’re not too filling though - very light fruit.
This one DOES have something to do with a mango! The shape and structure (skin, meat, pit) are the same as in mango fruits known in the west, however, the colour of the fruit meat is much lighter. Almost banana-like creamy hue. The fruit is more starchy and heavier than a “regular” mango, and the skin is green in most cases, but can also be brown!
In Indonesia, you can eat it raw, but it is also commonly used as a base for fruit shakes and even to make sambal (spicy dip/sauce)!
Price: The fruit is less known to tourists, hence the prices are quite low. You will probably not find it in supermarkets, rather on local markets and fruit stands.
Sold as: Singe fruits
Watch out: Make sure you buy the white mango and don’t get tricked with an unripe regular sweet mango! Feel the fruit whether it’s soft before you purchase it.
Personal opinion: I like this funny mix of potato and a mango! Starchy fruits are my jam!
Eaten “raw”, dried or used in various dressings and sauces in many of the south-east Asian cuisines, tamarind is a funny case. The raw fruit has a consistency of a… juicy raisin. Like dates, you can get tamarind fresh or dried, but even the fresh version has a specific, chewy consistency that dried fruits are mostly known for. Tamarind is a beautiful dance of sweet and sour, which is why it often comes rolled in sugar if you buy the dried version in 7-11 stores.
On the outside, it looks a bit like a form of a bean. The round tamarind “meat chunks” are protected by a semi-hard skin, that looks like a brown, enlarged edamame-bean! Once you open the skin, you can eat the fruit meat directly, but a string/stem is going through.
Countries: Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia
Price: 1 kg for 3 USD in supermarkets
Sold as: on-the-go snacks in convenience stores or packaged in boxes - most often pre-packaged/“portioned”
Watch out: There might be stringy stems & pits! And you risk greasing yourself with tamarind’s stickiness.
Personal opinion: Tastes great! Especially in sauces and dips!
This fruit has a very ... testicle-alike form. There, I said it. But its brown, tough armadillo-alike skin, it does have a funny reptile-vibe to it. It tastes really mild, the structure is, again, a bit like a lychee/rambutan with white'ish fruit meat around a relatively large pit. You have to break the skin open with your fingers/nails to get to the fruit meat. It's soft and moisty, but don't expect fruit juíce running down your chin.
Countries: Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia
Price: 2 - 3 USD per kg when in season
Sold as: Loose fruits or with the entire branch, in this kind of fruit-nest
Watch out: When you open the fruit, the “splints” from the skin can get stuck in your fingers. Not a pleasant feeling!
Personal opinion: It’s nice, but I’m not crazy about it. I find it difficult to find a ripe piece of the fruit, and in my honest opinion, it’s a bit of a hassle to peel.
That’s the fruit that looks like a real-lie fire-ball! The colours of its skin are almost toxic-looking, the bright pink with bright green “flames”. Under the thick, yet soft skin you will find either white (with black seeds) or red/dark pink (also with black seeds) fruit meat.
The taste is quite mellow, not too sweet, the fruit is often used in smoothie bowls or shakes.
Countries: All around Asia
Price: Depending on the season! Fruits vary a lot in size too.
Sold as: single pieces of fruit or cut-up fruit meat in boxes
Watch out: The red dragonfruit stains! Also, they have the … beetroot-effect, the redness of the fruit might come through you and manifest on the other side of your metabolic system.
Personal opinion: Yum! Especially in smoothie bowls
I hope this guide can bring both ease and inspiration to your Asian food explorations, and especially if you want to try a raw vegan diet while travelling in South-East Asia, knowing your fruits is essential! There is a lot of nourishment in the fruits, a lot of energy, and yes, you can survive just eating fruits here. I'm not only living of fresh fruit, but I make it a part of my mission to support travellers with special dietary needs with my advice and guidance. And I know it can be intimidating to shop products you aren't familiar with, so I hope this post brought clarity and maybe spiked your curiosity for the next food market tour!