The Allure of Unripe Fruit

An American in Beirut notices something surprising about local food tastes: the people there like unripe fruit. His mission: to find out why. He consults with the most respected food authorities in the area, then does a little unscientific research of his own.

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Photo by Joshua Hersh

The first time I ate a loz akhdar --a green, or unripe, almond--at a sunny, Sunday barbecue in Beirut, a month or so ago, I dismissed it as a novelty. For weeks I had been seeing those little guys--small, oval-shaped, with fuzzy green skin, and hard as a rock--at nearly every fruit stand in the city, and, although I admit I was intrigued, they looked about as appetizing as a pine cone. So I passed.

At the barbecue, when I finally learned what this thing was--and that people liked them!--I was game to try one. This led to an ardent debate among the locals (always a good sign) about whether you had to remove the center, or if you could in fact eat the whole thing. Ultimately I did the latter, consuming it fuzzy skin and all. And? It was fine. The flesh in the middle--the aspiring almond--was white, and had the consistency of hard Swiss cheese but not the flavor. On the whole, it tasted pretty much exactly the way you'd expect an unripe nut to taste. I was not impressed.

"Try it with some salt," a friend helpfully suggested. Result: salty unripe nut.

So, like I said, I put this obscure genre of produce out of my mind, dismissed it as a fluke. Then, a couple weeks later, I was at my local grocer when my eye landed on a giant bucket of green, shiny fruits I had never seen before. I'm a sucker for shiny--the fruits looked like glossy, oversized cherries--and so I bought a handful. But when I got home and popped one in my mouth, there was that same disappointing, unfinished flavor again. It was almost devoid of flavor, although maybe what I really mean is devoid of sugar, only this time with an edge of sourness. When I asked a friend what I had just eaten, she told me, "Oh, that's the jenarik , the unripe plum. Try it with salt."

Soon I could hardly leave my house without encountering yet another variety of unripe produce. It turned out there are a lot of them, and the Lebanese enjoy them all: unripe chickpeas (some people claim they're the best), unripe apples (in the summer), unripe grapes ( hosrom , which are used to make an extremely sour molasses that people eat on salads). To me, unripe means not ripe--as in, not ready to eat--but the Lebanese seem to prefer them to the real thing. I needed to know what was going on. Why wouldn't the Lebanese let a plum just become a plum?

The first person I checked in with was Kamal Mouzawak, the founder of Beirut's main farmer's market, the Souk el Tayeb , and the poet laureate of Lebanese produce, to see if he could explain this bizarre Lebanese love affair with unfinished fruits and vegetables.

"It's a definite sign of spring," Mouzawak replied.

Isn't the ripe thing the sign of spring? I asked.

"No! That's summer. Spring is when you have the things that are not done yet, that are just forming. Green fava beans, raw green peas. The almond is the fanciest! It's not unripe for us, it's perfect. All of these things you dip in a bit of salt, by the way. It's like the yin and yang. The green is very yin, and the salt is to balance that out, so the taste feels better."

"They're party nibbles," he said, "an example of the Lebanese dolce vita . You get five kilos of fava beans and some arak [anise-flavored liqueur, similar to ouzo and raki], and you sit and sip the arak and eat some the favas."

Mouzawak has an almost sensual appreciation for food - at one point he seemed to suggest that Lebanese appetites were related to something from Ovid's Metamorphoses --but I was looking for a more definitive answer, so I called up Rami Zurayk.



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Photo by Joshua Hersh

Zurayk is a professor of Agriculture at American University Beirut. If Mouzawak is the poet of Lebanese produce, Zurayk is its academic dean. He's a founding member of Slow Food Beirut , the author of a book on local food culture, and an avid produce blogger . He told me that as far as he knew, "Nobody has studied this aspect of eating."

Nevertheless, the idea seemed to initiate a fit of self-examination. Over the course of the next several days, in a stream of emails and phone calls, he offered the following six insights:

1.) Fruits eaten unripe are in some cases a different species from the ones eaten ripe.

2.) By cultivating the fruit over the entirety of its life cycle, farmers are able to avoid market gluts and sell their product for a longer time, thus making more money. (Ramzi Ghosn, the co-owner and winemaker at Masaya, in the Bekaa Valley, told me that at Masaya there is a "green harvest" in the early spring. They use the unripe grapes to make sour grape molasses, and the remaining grapes acquire greater complexity from the reduced density on the vine.)

3.) One of the origins of the taste for unripe fruits may be that poor country kids used to steal fruit from farmers. As the fruit ripened, the farmers were on alert, so the kids had to make their moves as early as possible, long before the fruit was ready to eat.

4.) Birds have a tendency to pick at the fully ripe fruit and so, short of using pesticides, the best way to avoid bringing unsightly fruit to market is to harvest it before it's ready.

5.) The molasses from unripe grapes is "the secret ingredient of tabbouleh, but don't tell anybody."

6.) Girls like unripe fruits more than boys.

Well, OK, Professor Zurayk may have veered beyond the textbook a little bit. But then again, what if he's onto something?

An informal poll of Beirut foodies yielded the following unscientific results:

• Four women who said they love both loz akhdar and jenarik , although in two cases they seemed to like the unripe versions more for their dietetic properties--less sugar than the finished product--than taste. (Many women in Beirut are diet-conscious.)

• One woman who does not like either. (She'd been living in France for several years.)

• Three men who like both just fine, although their lack of enthusiasm suggested a kind of default nationalistic pride more than a taste preference.

• One man--Walid Ataya, the owner and chef of Bread Republic, a creative, contemporary Lebanese-cuisine restaurant in Beirut--who said he enjoyed the almond, but "I don't know about the unripe plum. It's too acidic for my tastes." He also told me that he couldn't think of anyone who cooked with the unripe versions of these fruits or vegetables.

After an exhaustive search of tens of Lebanese foodies and one Internet, I did find a dish--at Çiya , the best restaurant in Istanbul, where Chef Musa Dagdeviren uses the green almond ( çağla in Turkish) in a dish with lamb and yogurt. It might even tempt me to try loz akhdar again.