Although the world of food is continuously getting smaller — name an exotic cooking ingredient and I can probably find it in Bay Area markets — when it comes to fruit, the world is still quite large. Many fruits just can’t travel more than a few hundred miles without a severe degradation in quality. Others, like most of the scores of edible banana varieties, are too fragile for economical shipment. And others, like the mangosteen, can harbor pests that prevent their import (into the United States, at least until recently, and then often requiring irradiation, as a 2006 article by David Karp in the NY Times explains).
So, when traveling, local fruit is one of the culinary highlights.
On this most recent trip, which took me to South Korea, Singapore and Indonesia, I sampled some old favorites (perfectly ripe mangoes), got a new perspective on some others (like bananas, which I never liked as a kid), and tried some new fruits. The photo above from a roadside stand in Bali shows a small sample of what we saw. In the bottom row, from left to right, there are mangosteens, oranges, tamarillos (which actually grow in Bay Area backyards), and more oranges (an interesting fact about oranges: cool nights are required to turn their skin orange, so many tropically-raised oranges are partially or full green). The top row, from left to right has green mangoes, tamarillos, a fruit that I can’t identify, snakeskin fruit (the eventual subject of this post), and bananas.
Snakeskin fruit (salak in Bahasa Indonesia and Malay, also called snake fruit), are the fruit of small palm trees. Grown in many countries of Southeast Asia, they are available most of the year.
A close-up of the fruit reveals how it got its name: the skin is scaly like a snake’s. They are roughly the size of a small pear, about 15 cm long and 10-15 cm in diameter.
The peel is just a millimeter or two thick. And can be dangerous: a careless fruit peeler (like me), can easily cut a finger on the sharp scales, each one of them like a knife-tip.
Underneath the peel you’ll find a few hard white orbs that each contain a sturdy pit. The fruit tasted somewhat like a combination of apple, pear, and lychee, with a bit of astringency and a surprisingly dry texture. Overall, an interesting fruit to look at, but not so interesting to eat.