Photo by Jarrett Wrisley
"Oh, I forgot!" said a friend with glee, after we had scarfed down twenty Mangosteens, "This is your first fruit season!"
Indeed it is. And my first fruit season in Thailand is sort of like a first ski season at Jackson Hole...for a food nerd. We're totally getting dumped on, and it's pretty rad out there.
Now, there is always a year-round array of fruit on Southeast Asia's streets--crispy rose apples, green and tannic guavas, sugary pineapples, earthy papaya and exquisite bananas.
(NOTE: I used to dismiss bananas. But my bananas used to be the massive, Cavendish variety sold in the U.S., China, and elsewhere. Their texture is either too firm or too mushy, and they generally taste too green or too sweet for me. But there are a half-dozen types of bananas at my fruit stall, and they all differ in shape, texture and taste. I've settled on a favorite, which has a sour-apple taste, and I think is a variety called the Manzano.)
All the above fruits are good, if pedestrian. But now we're getting into seasonal fruit. Mangoes of all sizes, and at all stages are ripeness, are sold wherever there's sidewalk space. You want one crunchy and green, with a powdery sourness? Or perhaps yellow and soft, with a sweet suggestion of vanilla? There's always in between, big and small, red and orange...
There are frizzy, alien rambutans, and floral, perfumed lychees so juicy and sweet that they pop in the mouth, splashing sticky juice down unsuspecting chins. Last week, my wife kicked me and my durian out of the house. So I sat on the curb, finishing off its rank, custardy richness with the neighbor's maid.
But still, that's not what I set out to write about.
To paraphrase the great M.F.K. Fisher, Consider the Mangosteen. It was the favorite fruit of the late R.W. Apple Jr.--who left deep footprints during his final food writings in Bangkok, and wrote an ode to this glorious fruit. That was penned during a time of bitter prohibition. They're now available in the U.S., in limited quantities, but if you plan on eating a more than a few you might as well hop a flight to Bangkok. They're tremendously expensive if you can find them in the States (and, I suspect, a pale imitation of the freshest, never-refrigerated fruits found here).
A mangosteen is utterly unlike any fruit I have ever tasted--and yet there is a bit of almost every fruit within it. The ones we are getting now have vibrant green leaves that look like petals on an ugly flower. Unlike the imported versions I've tried in China, the thick casing of the fruit gives easily under a knife's pressure, like cheap cardboard rather than rawhide. And with a gentle twist you can extract this Indonesian fruit's sweet meat.
The edible sections look like cloves of garlic without peel, and stand creamy white against the fruit's purple backdrop. Strangely, they smell of almost nothing.
The best mangosteens are both assertively sour and intensely sweet. They taste floral and fragrant and call to mind many fruits at many different times. Like a great wine, a good mangosteen is long on the palate. During that time, it might just tap-dance straight from your tongue to your brain, and lodge itself there.
Imagine the best peach you've ever eaten, combined with a touch of passion fruit, a sliver of nectarine and a nip of lychee. Imagine a concord grape's sweet purple essence giving way to the clean leanness of a Granny Smith. Add a squeeze of lime, and a spoon of buttery brown sugar. Stir.
No wine writer or master sommelier will ever divine a mangosteen in a Sauvignon Blanc or a Pinot Gris (and if they do, they are lying to you). It's a flavor you simply can't chase down--it runs in too many directions at once.
Fortunately, eating one is a lot easier.
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