Manggis, Garcinia mangosteena, is a lovely fruit. It has a thick purple rind with pure white fruit and bright yellow sap. Manggis is in season at the same time as Durian. It is apparently known as mangosteen in English, but this English speaker had never heard the word till I arrived here, so I just call it by it’s shorter local name, manggis.
Manggis has the distinction of being the next supposed miracle health food. It is being heavily promoted in the States as a cure-all, based on one part thin scientific research (Xanthones or some such) and one part on it’s equally dubious role in traditional medicine here in Malaysia. As far as I or anyone I know has heard of, manggis has no particular healing power except that it is believed to be “cooling”. The traditional food system, which is similar I guess to Indian ayurveda, is that all foods have some property, either hot, cool, windy, etc. Some foods are more strongly hot/cool/windy/etc than others. Durian is considered strongly heaty. Manggis is strongly cooling, and since they fruit at the same time, it is considered an “antidote” to Durian. That’s it for the word on the street.
Now, there is certainly more arcane knowledge than that about all the foods and plants around here. That is the province of the bomoh or dukun. What’s the difference between a bomoh and a dukun? That’s a great first line for a joke, but I don’t have the joke yet. The difference is that the bomoh deals more in maladies of the spirit world, curses, charms, jinn, things like that. The dukun is more of an herbal healer. According to the advertising brochures for these manggis products, FRIM, the Forest Research Institute in Malaysia published a bulletin on traditional use of various local plants. In it, they assert that manggis is in use by dukuns for treatment of a couple of different illnesses. I don’t doubt FRIM: they are a well respected organization. But the bulletin is merely documenting incidence of use by local witch doctors, nothing more. I should mention that I don’t have anything against witch doctors. Some of my best friends are witch doctors. I’m sure a good dukun knows when to use manggis and when not to. The problem is with these health food promoters who make every kind of claim about their product’s efficacy, as if it is a panacea for world suffering.
What makes the promotion of manggis more offensive is that it is sold through Multi-level Marketing (MLM) schemes, or “Network Marketing” if you prefer. There few things more distasteful than having your friends or relatives try to turn you out for a profit, which is exactly how MLM works. The Manggis MLM is not here in Malaysia yet, but every single other one under the sun is, from alpha to omega, or Amway to Omegatrend, if you like. MLM is so popular here in Malaysia I think because people have really large social networks. Families are big, extended families are close, and neighborhoods and villages are active and connected much more so than an American small town or neighborhood, in my opinion. So any MLM newbie has a huge pool of victims to pimp. Whole villages will fall to a new MLM scheme almost at once, with the head of the village or other influential member like the family matriarch introducing, and everyone else falling in to the downstream.
When I was newly arrived in Malaysia and casting about for work, a man in my wife’s faculty who was older than her and outranked her, invited us to his house for lunch in order to discuss a job possibility for me. We couldn’t refuse. Sure enough, it was a trap. He plied us with MLM tea and MLM biscuits while he went through the whole spiel, complete with flipchart. When I escaped to the bathroom, it was decorated like a department store display, with MLM soap, MLM lotion, and MLM air freshener. Wife, Daughter and hapless Son-in-law, his loyal downstream, were also on hand to offer their testimonials. We sat and smiled politely through gritted teeth for what seemed like forever. It was the single most awkward moment I’ve been through since I got here.
When you combine the social coerciveness of MLM with the hysteria around fad medicines, you get a very potent money machine indeed. Tahitian Noni Juice, the last big one, was an extract of Morinda citrifolia. Morinda grows like a weed in Malaysia and has been used since forever for a variety of health problems by the Malays, who call it mengkudu. When Noni Juice was at its peak, my dear mother-in-law, normally nobody’s fool, was buying bottles at who knows how many Ringgit a pop, when she had the plant growing right in her own backyard.
If manggis hits the big time like Noni Juice did, I wonder where they will get their supply. Mangosteen is in the market for only a few weeks out of the year, and never in very big quantities. I don’t know how much is grown in our neighboring countries, but it seems to me they could exhaust their supply around here. And that would be a shame, because it is a lovely fruit, super sweet, colorful and fun. It sells for around 4RM/kilo around here. If there is a worldwide run on manggis, we’re the ones who will lose out.