Some pictures of petai, a green bean used in Malay home cooking. It grows in long pods on a very large tree of the Legume family, Parkia speciosa. The beans are very pungent. I’ve most often seen it cooked in sambal tumis ikan bilis, a fried chili paste with dried anchovies. It is also eaten raw dipped in some kind of spicy sambal. A lot of vegetables in the diet are eaten raw with chili sauces instead of salad dressing, a practice known as ulam. I can eat petai on occassion, but mostly I just like the cool texture on the woody knobs that bear the pods (picture 2). Petai is believed to have a beneficial effect on the kidneys and urinary tract. I imagine this is due to the dark brown foul-smelling urine you will pass the day after a petai meal.
Petai is semi-wild; it is often encouraged to grow on the outskirts of kampungs. It is also gathered directly from the forest. In The Economic Valuation of Parkia speciosa in Peninsular Malaysia, Woo Weng Chuen estimates the domestic market at between RM8-24 million per year. Due to the whole smelly brown urine thing, though, I don’t think Petai has much future as an export crop, aside from supply to southeast asian communities in diaspora.
In Michigan, where I’m from, we have large fruit; watermelons and pumpkins for example can reach great size. Sensibly, these fruits grow on trailing vines, right on the ground. But imagine a fruit that size that grows suspended from a tree! Aiee! Maybe it’s called Jackfruit because it will jack you up if it lands on you. Actually, the cultivated trees are not that tall, only a few meters, so we’re not really talking Durian kill-factor here. Still, seeing something that size just sprouting out the side of a tree is very odd, like a tumor or something. That’s my six-month-old there in the background, for scale.
Jackfruit is nangka in Malay, Artocarpus heterophyllus botanically. It is in the same family and genus as the previously mentioned Terap and the Cempedak. Underneath the green warty skin is a great mass of fleshy, sticky yellow fibers surrounding a dozen or two fruits surrounding large smooth seeds not unlike avacado seeds. The fruits themselves are also yellow, sticky and somewhat sweet. I’d have given you pictures, but Good Lord, one of those monsters can set you back 30 or 40RM! So instead here is a website with lovely photos.
The flavor is not particularly pronounced. Maybe for this reason it is frequently used like a vegetable in cooking. Often it is cooked together with coconut heart, umbut, in a coconut milk sauce.
The pictures you see were taken at the wonderful Ming Kiong Gardens on Airport Road. The place is a little pricey but they grow superior fruit from hybrid and improved varieties. You can be sure you’ll get a tasty orchard fruit, not some wild-gathered thing. They carry their own variety of golden mango that is available nowhere else. They also have a Jackfruit-Chempadak hybrid called nan-chem that is better than both mother fruits, in my opinion. It is more like cempadak in flavor but less gassy, and more like nangka in texture.
When I spotted this fruit in the market, I left the stall I was standing at and zipped over to the neighboring stall where it was being sold, five-year-old in tow. I started asking the hawker about the fruit when the lady from the previous stall came over, carrying my crying three-year-old. She shot me this look that said “you delinquent father you!” Oops!
The fruit you see above is Dragon Fruit, product of Bintulu, Sarawak. It’s pretty large, weighing about a kilo and about the size of my hand covering my fist. The outer skin is tough and pink, but easily peeled. Between the outer skin and the edible part is a livid purple color. The shot I took of it didn’t come out, sorry. The edible part is gray and shot through with little black seeds. It strongly resembles an enormous gray kiwi fruit, except the seeds are not regularly arranged around the center, but evenly dispersed throughout the flesh. The flavor and texture is kind of like a kiwi too, except not at all citrus-y, and more sweet.
Yet it’s not related to the kiwi! Dragon Fruit, Hylocerus undatus, is in the cactus family and originates in drier tropical climates in the New World. Read more about it at Tradewinds Fruit. Or you can see some better pictures than mine.
I came back from my latest foray in the night market with a small bag of Buah Salak. These fruits are about the size and shape of a ripe fig. They are covered in a shiny, scaly peel that resembles snakeskin or armadillo hide. Inside, the flesh is firm, dry and crunchy, kind of like an unripe pear. As for the flavor, my report will have to wait till next time. You see, I got took. The whole half-kilo bag was unripe. I should’ve known I was about to be duped when I asked the innocent-looking 12-year-old running the stall how to tell a ripe salak from an unripe one. “These are all good,” he tells me. Yeah, right. There was enough hint of sweetness and flavor to make me definitely try again, but this batch was inedible. Kelat, they say in Malay: that woody, bitter aftertaste left on the roof of your mouth.
I wasn’t too happy with how the pictures came out, but I found some better ones. This site has artsy pictures of popular Balinese fruits, including the Salak. For you horts, this site has growing requirements and tips, as well as good pictures. This site has a lot of information, in bad english, about the Salak and the commercial Salak trade, which is big business in Bali. Finally, for the botanists: Salak is Salacca zalacca, formerly Salacca edulis. [Aside: You know, botanical names are supposed to provide a standard reliable name for describing plants, but I swear they change faster than common names. I can think of six or seven common Michigan plants that have had a name change since I last was last studying them.] This site has a catalog of the various Salacca palms in existence. Here in Kuching, Salacca conferta, Kelubi, is also readily available. It is smaller than the Salak, and is used as a sour ingredient in sauces. Apart from the size, they look pretty similar. I bought some a few weeks back thinking they were Salak…
The next fruit I present to you is the mata kuching, literally, cat’s eye. It’s about the size of a quarter, with a thin peel that covers a juicy greyish meat that covers a hard shiny dark brown seed. The fruit is sweet with a musky, almost salty aftertaste. They are inexpensive in season. They’re selling for 3-4 ringgit a kilo, or less than 50 cents a pound.
They are often called longans here, which led me on a little internet hunt. The longan is Dimocarpus longan (previously known as Euphoria longans), and is the premier export fruit of Thailand. However, according to the Purdue Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, the longan does not fruit in Malaysia. Now, that’s odd, because I’ve seen them growing at Ming Kiong Gardens near my son’s preschool, hanging heavy with fruit. The answer is provided by Prof. Wong Kai Choo of the Univeristy Putra Malaysia. (Formerly Universiti Pertanian Malaysia, the Malaysian Agricultural University. They recently changed their name; a sensible move, since as everyone knows, having anything to do with soil automatically lowers your social status by about three pegs. Ahem.)
He explains that the mata kuching is a particular variety of a subspecies of a relative of the subtropical longan. In Borneo, there may be dozens of identifiable races within this variety, the best of which are in Sarawak. All right! These races are categorized into three groups. And the group of races that bear the fruit I’m eating is likely the ‘kakus’ group, the only group that has brown fruit when ripe. Wow. Dimocarpus longan ssp. malesianus var. malesianus r. kakus. A race of a group of a variety of a subspecies of the longan! Thank you, Prof. Wong Kai Choo. But then, he takes a break from his scholarly language to note that the mata kuching “is hardly worth eating”. Well, who are you gonna believe, me or a professor of crop science with a specialty in Malaysian tropical fruit? Don’t answer that.
If Malaysia is the land of odd fruit, then Sarawak must be the capital. I have just as much fun looking at it all as I do eating it. This one is called a Kuap Terap, according to the guy who sold to me. My Malay dictionary doesn’t have it, Google doesn’t have it, SR had never seen one before. It must be in the same family as the durian, but it is even more bizarre. It’s about the size of a football (sorry, American football) but more rounded. It is completely covered in little rubbery stalks about an inch long. The stalks are stiff, with a rounded rubbery ball at the tip. It’s like fruit as designed by the Nerf people. The stalks come out of an inch thick skin. Inside is a mass of little white fruits attached to a central core. The fruits are very sweet, but are just a thin slimy wet skin over a nut. So out of a football sized nerf creature, there is maybe a tea cup worth of actually edible material. It’s tasty enough that I forgot to take a picture of the fruit itself before devouring it all. But I really am surprised that Google, the font of knowledge, doesn’t have any information on this thing at all. So I will start a little gallery of Sarawak fruit for your viewing pleasure. Longans are in season right now, so stay tuned.
[Update: Here’s a picture of the whole fruit. I’ve been scouring the web for any clues about this thing with no luck so far. But I did find a fruit that looks very similar, except that the fruit inside is red. It’s called a Bintawa. See a picture of it here (scroll down).
[Update #2: Terap! Terap, not Kuap. Thank you very much to Lan and/or Ambo for writing with the correction. Terap is in my Kamus Dwibahasa, according to which terap is:
A tree (Artocarpus elasticus) the bark of which is used as cloth, ropes etc. by aborigines; the sap from this tree is used for trapping birds.
No mention about the fruit. The Forestry Department of Brunei Darussalam (website in Malay) mentions terap on a page about traditional forest produce. They identify a fruit-bearing terap as Artocarpus odoratissimus. Either way, that puts the terap in the same genus as Cempedak and Jackfruit as Br. Affendi suggested, not Durian, which I would have guessed from the outer skin. And for my Michigan readers, the Artocarpus trees are all in the same family, Moraceae, as our common (to the point of being a weedy nuisance) Mulberry. So! Does anyone know where to find a quality illustrated botany text for Malaysia/Indonesia?