Before we left for Southeast Asia, I had visions of every tropical fresh fruit imaginable readily available. So, I was delighted to find perfectly delicious pineapple, sweet, ripe red watermelon, and bunches of bananas as plentiful as hanging garland during the holiday season. There were new, exotic fruits to learn about: the infamous durian, banned from many hotels because of its offensive odor (think fruit seasoned with garlic). Jackfruit and mangosteen were also included in the banned fruit category. Dragon fruit looked juicy and delicious, but it lacked flavor and the texture was dry and mushy. Rambutans had pretty shells and tasted like a grape or a plum. Papayas and mangos were ok, but not something I would select over melon or pineapple. Passion fruit smoothies were unbelievably alive with flavor but rare to find, possibly due to the time of year, and guava juice had a pleasant flavor, almost a blend of strawberry and melon.
What surprised me initially was the absence of oranges and the availability of commercial orange juice without sugar. Asians like their foods sweet, and orange juice was no exception, so any juice purchased from street vendors tasted like Tang. Occasionally we could find a name brand like Tropicana in markets. The best was when we could get fresh squeezed. Limes were plentiful; lemons were only found in specialty markets. Ironically, of the fruits served at hotel breakfasts bananas were only offered a few times; typically, it was pineapple, melon and papaya.
The next surprise was coconuts – as I knew them. I was looking forward to coconut meat right from the coconut. I remember Mom buying hard brown, hairy coconuts, driving a nail into the three eyes at the one end and draining the liquid from the coconut. After cracking it with a hammer, there would be a thin brown layer inside attached to firm white flesh. I loved the taste of this “fresh coconut.” When we got to Thailand, I was seeing all these green coconuts, but nothing brown and hairy. Often, the green shell would be removed to reveal a white “husk,” and people would be served this with a straw. One afternoon, a waitress convinced me to try a coconut fruit drink. It was thick, somewhat slimy, sweet and full of coconut flavor. I didn’t care much for it. It was then that I learned that in Asia, the preferred green coconuts are fresh, young coconuts, enjoyed for their soft gel-like flesh, and thicker, sweeter water. So, the difference is in the maturity level. What I thought was fresh coconut meat in America, was actually considered a fruit beyond its ideal eating point in Asia.
Although I haven’t developed a taste for the younger more nutritious variety as a fresh fruit, I can’t get enough of the coconut milk in Thai curries. Aside from eating coconut, extra virgin coconut oil is the most luxurious massage oil, especially heated and drizzled, then massaged into your skin at the skilled hands of a Balinese masseuse or masseur. Delicious aroma and great for your skin!