EVEN MORE SO THAN CHINA, VIETNAM IS THE COUNTRY WHICH OPENED MY EYES -- MAKE THAT MY MOUTH -- TO THE POSSIBILITIES OF
EXOTIC FOOD. Vietnam is the country where I overcame my Anglo-Saxon queasiness for strange new substances, and took a bite of the forbidden fruit. Snake, wild boar, more recently dog and seahorse
wine, I have hogged and scoffed it all, as Noodlepie might put it, but for whatever reason my culinary adventures have tended to stay on the meaty side. Maybe that is because I am a meatlover at heart,
it is hard to say. If there has been any theme to this latest Vietnamese jaunt, codenamed Summer Love in the Cruel Heart of Winter, it is this: fruit. That is probably due to the new feminine influence in my life,
the girl who invited me to Vietnam, and is my reason for being here. Fruit's such a girl thing anyway, isn't it? -- that's why I normally don't consume much of the stuff. But one of the first things Nga did after I met
her at Saigon airport at 3am after my backbreaking, soulwrecking Air China flight, was cut up a few slices of that tubular Vietnamese watermelon, and serve them
to me. Seeds and all. Later that morning, after I had showered and was ready to hit the sack, she asked: "Do you notice that smell? Is that the smell you were waiting for?" Surprised, I said: "what smell? do you mean the smell of
Ho Chi Minh City? (ie, motorcycle fumes.)" And she said: "No, it's durian, you said once in one of your emails, you really wanted to try durian." She pointed to a bag near the small bar refrigerator, which indeed contained, a couple of the
strange green fruits known as Sau rieng in Vietnamese. And you can be sure we cracked open those fruits within the next 24 hours, to enjoy the strange and strangely meatlike fruitiness inside.
You may wonder why this fruit (nicknamed the King of Fruits elsewhere in southeast Asia) has to bear such an austere name as sau rieng ("one's own sorrows"). As is often the case with Vietnamese fruit, there is a story behind the name. As is usually
the case with Vietnamese stories, this one revolves around cruelly fated young lovers. In certain Asian countries (Singapore, Malaysia), merely having a durian in your hotel room could be grounds for getting kicked out, due to the fruit's noxious toiletlike
smell. In Vietnam though people are much more relaxed and liberal, and nobody was going to mind about Nga's little green stash. It is good for you too -- packed with rare nutrients and potent vitamin combinations. As Rick Kump wrote: "The taste from heaven, the
smell from hell, it's the durian! One of the highest respected fruits throughout Southeast Asia, the durian has earned the nickname "King of the Fruits". King or not, it's one of the most interesting fruits I've ever come across. To those who are used to apples and
bananas, the durian experience is anything but ordinary... All durians have a custard-like consistency and can taste sweet or even nutty. My first reaction to the taste was one of surprise more than pleasure. It tasted like sweet, garlic pudding! The durian's health
qualities also have a good reputation throughout Asia. The durian is high in fiber, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and vitamins. The durian is also said to have heating qualities, which keep its eaters warm at night. This may be due to the amounts of sulfur, said to be
a beautifying mineral, which also give the durian its slightly garlic taste..."
My first encounter was Sau rieng was only a harbinger of the fruity delights to come.
At Saigon Airport once I picked up a little book called The Cuisine of Viet
Nam, bought out by the Viet Nam Cultural Traveler. In one of the articles inside, Huu Ngoc writes:
"In the West, grain and fruit overflowing from the Horn of Plenty traditionally symbolizes the abundance of a
good harvest; in the USA at Thanksgiving, the horn filled with fruit is a symbol of the prosperity for which one is
thankful. In Southeast Asia, there is a popular folk tale about a gourd with many seeds, the seeds representing the
rebirth of humankind after the Deluge. And Vietnamese pay homage to their ancestors by placing a tray of five fruits on an
altar: pomegranates, pears, peaches, plums and finger citrons, though people often choose other foods according to the season,
or the region in which they live. The particular varieties of fruit are less important than the beautiful appearance of the fruit tray,
with its harmonious colors and balanced presentation. Nowadays, a bundle of green bananas is also a must. Like the Horn of Plenty, the
tray of five traditional fruits symbolizes the wish for abundance. It is also the emblem of the five elements of Asian cosmology: water, earth,
wood, metal and fire.
"From the time they are small, Vietnamese children come to associate three fruits with particular stories: the thi (Vietnamese persimmon), the watermelon and
"The thi fruit is succulent, smooth and attractive. When ripe, it turns gentle yellow and gives off a subtle, sweet smell; it is often one of the five fruits placed on pagoda altars.
Children are likely to hear of thi in the Tấm Cám, Vietnam's Cinderella. The tale is based on the Buddhist belief in reincarnation. In the story, Tấm is killed
by her stepmother and stepsister, but is reborn into a thi tree bearing only a single, beautiful fruit. An old woman, seeing the gorgeous fruit, takes it home, not to eat,
but to cherish as a prized possession. Tấm is reborn from the fruit and becomes the woman's adopted daughter, after which she is reunited with her husband the King.
"Watermelon also serves as a votive offering on altars, and plays a very important role in an appealing fairytale for children. Three thousand years ago, the story goes, during the times of the
Hung kings, a young man named An Tiem was adopted by King Hung. Spoken ill of by the king's toadies, An Tiem and his wife, the princess, and their children were exiled to a wild island where they
led a very harsh life. One day a flock of birds flew over the island, dropping some black seeds on the island. An Tiem planted those mysterious black seeds, and soon they bore fruit. He cultivated the seeds
for his crop and traded them for rice and necessary equipment with trading ships that came to the island. An Tiem's life quickly improved and eventually, through his hard work and intelligence, he became
rich. On hearing of An Tiem's success, King Hung had him welcomed back to the royal palace.
"The succulent star fruit (carambola) with five sections, can be served raw in salad, or cooked in soup. It is also served as a dessert. There are two types of star fruit: the sweet and the sour, both kinds
grown in out-of-the-way garden corners or by the ponds. There is a folk tale about the star fruit tree. Two brothers, when coming into their inheritance, received unequal portions. As was the custom, the elder
brother took the majority, but contrary to custom, the elder brother failed to provide for his sibling, leaving his younger brother only a shabby cottage and a star fruit tree.
"One day a phoenix came to eat the fruit of the young man's tree, but made a promise, as follows: "For every fruit I eat, I will return you a bar of gold. You must sew a bag three
spans wide to hold the gold you will receive." The young man followed the instructions of the mysterious phoenix and that very night was taken to an island in the middle of the sea to collect his gold.
"When he saw how wealthy his younger brother had become, and hearing the story of the magical bird from his guileless brother, the elder brother persuaded the young man to trade the star fruit tree for all the elder
brother's treasures. The next day the elder brother made the same bargain with the phoenix. Just as he expected, the bird came to eat the star fruit and made the same promise to the elder brother, who sewed the biggest bag
he could to hold his gold. But when he got to his island, he was so greedy he filled up his bag with so much gold that after flying a short way, the phoenix could carry him no longer and had to drop him into the sea, where he
sank still clutching his treasure..."