The book is basically an encouragement to try local foods when you travel. As one writer puts it, "Every traveller's mantra is (or should be): Eat what your hosts eat, and then you'll understand them a lot better." The book is published by Lonely Planet; they know a thing or two about travelling and eating well.
The story that stuck with me the most was a very funny piece called "Long Live the King" by John T Newman. The writer is an American who was visiting the tiny Banda Islands, part of Indonesia (here's a map). They were previously known as the Spice Islands. While there he learned about the "queen of fruits" and the "king of fruits".
Pause for a moment, and think about what fruits you would crown as king and queen. I wonder if these choices are personal, cultural, or both? Apples are my favourite fruits to eat regularly, but pineapple and papaya are my "treat fruits". I would call them my king and queen of fruits.
The queen of fruits on the Banda Islands is the mangosteen. Before moving to Asia I had never seen or even heard of a mangosteen. They don't grow anywhere the temperature dips below four degrees Celsius (which rules out all the places I lived before this--Canada, the UK, and Europe. Mangosteen trees don't even do well if the temperature goes down to fifteen degrees. They also doesn't travel well, which explains why you can't find any outside of South East Asia.
Here's how Newman describes mangosteens:
Like the rest of the spectrum of toothsome equatorial produce, it is different enough from its temperate cousins to defy comparison. The rind is purple and leathery. The flesh is segmented like a tangerine, but as white as a lily and not nearly as acidic. The taste is flowery with buttery caramel overtones--in other words, ineffably exquisite and orgasmically delicious.
I bought some mangosteens to try earlier this month and took them to school. It was the last week of term and I brought my advisory group students (similar to a tutor group or a homeroom class) a breakfast of bananas, mandarins, and mangosteens. A student who is long-time Singapore resident showed me how to open the mangosteen--by pressing it on opposite sides like you are squishing a rubber ball. The skin popped open and I peeled it back to find the lily-white flesh. And it really is as delicious as Newman describes.
Yes, the mangosteen is a reason to travel to South East Asia. But what about the king of fruits? On the Banda Islands, it is the durian. That is a whole different matter. Durian tastes alright (some people love it) but it smells disgusting to me. It has a very strong smell and it has been described as the stench of wet socks. It is banned in public transport in Singapore. The spiky fruits are as big as a loaf of bread, but it's common to buy only a few portions since you want to eat it all in the first sitting and not leave any to fester.
Newman describes in his essay how he and each of his (non-Asian) companions tried durian. One of them spat her mouthful out and then "fled... without another word, searching, I suspect, for something to gargle with--a bottle of mouthwash, or maybe a cup of diesel fuel."
I have to admit that I have not tried durian, with the exception of dried durian chips, which are not at all the same, pungent thing. I am not sure I want to try it anytime soon. But I plan to enjoy mangosteens at every available opportunity.
What are your king and queen of fruits?
Do you like to eat adventurously when you travel?
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