With more favourite dishes on the World’s 50 Best Foods than any other country in the world, Thailand’s array of native fruits and vegetables is astonishing.
Colourful, tasty, versatile and praised for their medicinal benefits, Thai produce catches the eye and tantalises the mouth when incorporated in the many popular dishes available throughout the country.
The tropical climate in Thailand makes for flourishing gardens of local produce, vegetables and fruits whose exotic look can sometimes seem like an inedible alien to some Westerners. But Thailand’s farmers and cooks alike have the know-how and skill to turn something ugly or strange into some of the best dishes and drinks around.
The following recipes, some of which are Western in nature, should entice you to be more adventurous when shopping for exotic fruits in Thailand.
The mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana) is an attractive, purple-skinned fruit. The velvety skin protects six fleshy segments of delicious juiciness and has a light hint of floral flavour. Mangosteen extracts are also great moisturisers and are used in cosmetics made in Thailand such as creams, lotions, facial masks, and shampoos. The skin of the mangosteen is known for its anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties, which improve the immune system. As an added bonus, the presence of xanthones provide an abundance of antioxidants.
In savoury dishes, Thais use the mangosteen towards the end of cooking to dress the dish with a bit of sweetness. Mangosteen can be used in fruit salads or fruit ices (granita) and lemongrass or chamomile enhances its flavour, similarly to how a lime pumps up the taste of papaya. Even mixologists have found a use for the pretty mangosteen! If you love the richness of a French custard, then this Thai-style Mangosteen Clafouti, published in Spruce Eats, an online foodie magazine, is just the treat.
More affectionately known as snake fruit, the salak (Salacca wallichiana) resembles a projectile with a skin similar to that of a snake. The rind is difficult to peel, so ask the vendor to peel it for you.
Although it is rumoured to cause constipation with overindulgence, snake fruit is still a Thai staple, known for its apple-like texture, with a sweet-and-sour taste similar to a pineapple. It’s loaded with fibre, beta-carotene, and other vitamins and minerals like phosphorus, iron, calcium and proteins. Thais like to dip the fruit in sugar and salt, or try it in Sohm Choom, a complex and delicate dessert with peanuts, ginger, jasmine, green mango and coconut in a pandanus leaf syrup.
Cherry red outside and pearly white inside, the rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum) is slightly sweet and simply refreshing. The Vietnamese call it “chom chom”, (meaning, messy hair), and it is one of Asia’s most beautiful sights when seen on the evergreen trees on which it grows. Rambutans contain manganese, an essential element known to rev up the metabolism, and is delicious in curry.
Thailand’s most monstrous fruit, Artocarpus heterophyllus, otherwise known as jackfruit, is a species of breadfruit. Both the flesh and the seeds are used in Thai cooking, and it is readily available, as a mature tree can produce up to 200 fruits yearly. Its flavour mirrors a mixture of a multitude of fruits including apples, bananas, mangoes and pineapple.
It’s good for your health, too, as it is low in calories, packed with fibre and contains an array of healthy vitamins, while also being a good source of protein. Try this recipe for Jackfruit Sloppy Joes for a deliciously filling main dish that any vegan would love.
Rounding out our look at five bizarre fruits, is the most misunderstood and reviled tropical fruit in Thailand: the odoriferous durian. The odour of a durian can permeate all of your senses from more than a metre away, with some likening the unpleasant aroma of dirty socks. But despite the smell, the durian continues to be one of the fruits most used in many food products all over Southeast Asia.
From frozen treats to dried snacks, candy confections to fruit shakes, the durian is respected as a vitamin-rich fruit with a creamy, yellow flesh that, when ripe, melts in your mouth. The confounding durian is known in these parts as the ‘king of fruits’. Its exterior is durable and spiny and it can withstand weather and foraging animal assaults. It also boasts a load of healthy vitamins and fibre. Love it or hate it, you’ve just gotta try it.
Here’s a recipe for a creamy durian cheesecake that is sure to turn you into a fan of this bizarrely stinky, exotic fruit.