I’ve always had a complicated relationship with fruit. As a Vietnamese kid growing up in the US, dessert more often than not was just the fruit sitting in a bowl that had been staring at me all throughout dinner. My Banana self revolted. Why didn’t my parents get that it couldn’t be dessert if it’s been sitting on the table the whole time?
My refugee self pictured my schoolmates, Norman Rockwell-like, with a bib and an entire Willa Wonka-esque dessert smorgasbord just waiting for them every night: cupcakes with sprinkles, red velvet or the mother of all desserts – Marvel ice cream cake. Is it cake? Or is it ice cream? Or quite magically straddling both worlds at the same time? While I ate a post-meal banana. Fitting. A banana for a Banana. This was how my relationship with fruit began.
Every once in a while, though, my mom would come home from the Vietnamese grocery store 45 minutes away and seem particularly excited. She’d pull out a bag, handling it with care, that contained fruits I had never seen before. Sometimes they’d be red and prickly, or purple with a pretty star design on top, or sometimes, even in the shape of an actual star. I remember my parents savoring these fruits, bursting with an intense sweetness not found in the usual Western supermarket offerings. Once, they seemed especially excited over some kind of fruit. I couldn’t quite see what it was, the condensation from the freezer obscuring the contents. But judging by how my parents were practically salivating over themselves, I knew it was going to be special, nay, magical.
When the contents were revealed, it was a pale yellow mass that my parents promised would be creamy goodness. For once, I was looking forward to fruit. Then, it came out of the bag, and with it a stench so overpowering, that I thought surely, my mother had been duped into buying rotting fruit. But no, they eagerly crowded around and took turns having scoops of this putrid-smelling fruit, a look on their faces that could only be described as rapturous. I must be mistaken, I thought. Maybe it only smelled bad, but in reality, tasted like ambrosia. Yes, that’s it. Ambrosia, the food of the gods. But incredibly, the fruit tasted as bad as it smelled. Worse, even, a hellish combination of onions, gym socks and Evil.
I would later find out that this ruiner of dreams was called durian, and throughout my childhood, it would surface in the most unexpected places. I remember once going to a party and seeing a frosted cake on the table. Finally! Dessert that wasn’t fruit. It must’ve been a special occasion of some sort. When I got my piece, though, one sniff confirmed my worst culinary nightmare. Durian cake. Then, there was a time someone gave me a piece of wrapped candy. Anticipating a burst of pineapply goodness, or at least something Skittles-like, once again I was foiled by durian.
In the years since, though, my relationship with fruit has mellowed. While we’re not yet the best of friends, I don’t mind when fruit comes over for dinner. In fact, it’s often an invited guest (although durian is still persona non grata). Overall, though, after 14 years of living in Asia, I’ve come to appreciate the wide variety of tropical fruits to be had, some whose tastes defy description.
I recently took a trip to the Mekong Delta, not only the “Rice Bowl of Vietnam”, but also one of its main fruit-growing regions. Here are some of the fruits found in just one large orchard. Test your fruitiness by seeing how many you’re able to identify. (Scroll to the bottom for answers.)
1. Let’s start easy. This plant is incredibly useful. The trunk is used for housing. The leaves are woven into roofing material. The young fruit is filled with refreshing liquid and the flesh can be scraped away and eaten.
2. Here’s another easy one. These fruit grow in bunches (only one to a tree), although a different color than the variety normally seen in the West. The bud can also be shredded and made into a salad.
3. This fruit is grown commercially in Central and Southern Vietnam. Its flesh is pale yellow to dark orange with a large inedible seed in the middle. There are hundreds of varieties in Vietnam, and they can be eaten ripe or unripe (usually with a bit of chili salt or pungent shrimp paste!)
4. This plant is technically a vegetable, with almost every part of it being edible. The crunchy stalks can be used raw in a salad with prawns and pork, or stir-fried. The seeds, shown here, are often eaten raw as a snack or cooked in a sweet dessert.
5. This fruit also has many uses. When raw and green, it’s often treated as a vegetable, used in soups or shredded as part of a crunchy salad. When ripe, its flesh turns a deep orange color and tastes like melon.
6. This fruit has a misleading name in English, because it tastes nothing like its name implies. These bell-shaped fruit come in many colors, ranging from white to green to red, and the flesh is crunchy and refreshing, but a bit on the bland side.
7. Ah, my old nemesis. This spiky fruit is known as the “King of Fruits” for its intense flavor, which has been described as anything from rotten trash to old gym socks. The Vietnamese, however, love its creamy sweetness. Its distinctive flavor also finds its way into Vietnamese candies and cakes, much to the dismay of my younger self.
11. This sweet, acidic fruit also finds its way into savory dishes, combined with shrimp and pork for a sweet and savory salad. You’ll often see roadside stands in Vietnam selling a bottle of its juice as a refreshing drink. It’s closely related cousin is common in the West. Here, it’s often larger with a much thicker rind.
12. If you couldn’t answer #4, here’s a hint: This is the gorgeous flower of that plant, a symbol in Buddhism, because it’s something of beauty that grows from the mud, representing the human condition.
13. The fruit of this cactus is named after the mythical animal it resembles. Bright fuchsia pink with green leaves, remove the leathery skin to reveal a white or deep red flesh that’s slightly sweetish / bland and can be eaten, small seeds and all.
So, how do you think you did? Scroll down to the bottom for answers.
Vietnam is a veritable paradise for fruit lovers. Recently, however, I heard of a chef who’s been using Vietnamese fruit in savory fusion dishes, so I made my way over to Acacia Veranda Dining (149-151 Nguyen Du, District 1, on the 8th floor of the Compass Parkview building), a casual chic eatery with tables also set out on the breezy outdoor space overlooking below. The restaurant is co-owned by Chef Jack Lee, better known to Americans as a celebrity chef and Food Network personality.
A graduate of the California School of Culinary Arts and Le Cordon Bleu program, Vietnamese-American Chef Lee immigrated to the US at the age of 10 and subsequently plied his trade in Los Angeles, in places like the Bel-Air Hotel, cooking for people like Nancy Reagan, Oprah and Angelina Jolie. The celebrity wall has photos of Chef Lee with everyone from Quincy Jones to Don Johnson to Clint Eastwood, serving up his signature Asian / French cuisine with special focus on the artistic plating.
“I was tricked by my best friend into coming to Vietnam,” says Chef Lee as I tuck into his warm watermelon soup. “I was filming in the US when he begged me to come over because he had a falling out with his chef. It was supposed to be only for 2-3 weeks while he found a replacement. At first, I was hesitant. The Vietnam I left wasn’t pretty; it was scary. But my friend assured me that Vietnam was different now. He said he lived in the Beverly Hills of Saigon and that the food was upscale. I arrived two days before having to cook for 180 people at a grand opening and asked, ‘Where’s the Costco?'” Only, there wasn’t one. I wasn’t convinced that Vietnam was the place to be long-term, so after a few weeks, I went back to the States. But when my friend still couldn’t find a replacement for his restaurant, he asked me to come back. That was more than a year ago.”
“When Demi Lavato was here a few months ago,” Chef Lee casually name drops, “she asked me what I was doing here. I told her that I’m now a star in Vietnam. I have a cooking show on TV, I’ve cooked for her boss, Simon Cowell and [TV chef] Martin Yan who told me I could be the next Jamie Oliver for Vietnam and offered mentoring advice on filming TV shows. I’ve found a whole new inspiration to cook with all the ingredients here, especially the fruit. It’s a whole new chapter in my life.”
As I slurp down the last of the deliciously unusual watermelon soup with hints of cilantro, mint, lemongrass, ginger and Thai tom yum, all served up in a martini glass with a skewer of seared scallop, I ask Chef Lee about his infatuation with using Vietnamese fruits in savory dishes.
“Vietnam has so many fruits that are so delicious and good for you. There’s a dish using trai gac. When I did the research, I saw celebrities were using it; it has 70 times more lycopine than tomatoes and 10 times more than carrots. For Westerners, fruit is very healthy. The Vietnamese might find Asian fusion strange, like watermelon in soup, but everyone who has it says they love it.”
I notice Vietnamese ingredients popping up in the most unexpected places, like in the basil aoili for the buttered, toasted bread. I’m pleasantly surprised. Saigon has some amazing food, including some of the best street food around. There are also many upscale restaurants serving up French, Japanese and Western cuisine. But it’s unusual to find distinctly Asian ingredients woven into classical Western dishes, like in our second starter, the Acacia fois gras with passion fruit sauce, balsamic glaze and balls of lusciously red dragon fruit. Fois gras is typically served with a fruit component, and here, the tart sweetness of the passion fruit does a good job of cutting the richness of the liver.
“Back in the States,” Chef Lee continues, “I used fruit with alcohol to make into sauces… plums, stone fruit, peach marmalade with deep fried chicken for the summer. Here in Vietnam, you don’t have fruit with that rich, earthy flavor like in the US. Here, it’s more a combination of light, sweet and sour which blends well with seafood.”
The rest of the meal is classic comfort food: a soul-satisfying, slow roasted slab of USDA Prime Rib that’s of Flintstones proportions. In a bite, I’m transported to the Deep South, as it’s served with cream of corn, mashed potatoes and a medley of vegetables au jus.
This evening, I’m on a mom date, and my mother, she of the durian trickery, orders Grilled salmon with an almond dill cream sauce that’s firm, flaky and beautifully balanced. We finish off with a lovely Baked Alaska flambed with Cointreau, a not-too-sweet ending to a sweet evening.
If you find yourself in Saigon, drop in for Chef Lee’s special: Acacia Signature USDA Prime Rib for two with a Baked Alaska dessert to share, all for VND 1,000,000 or just under USD 50.
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Chef Lee’s for the evening, however, as always, all opinions are honestly my own.
Answers to fruit quiz:
1. Coconut (Vietnamese: trái dừa)
2. Banana (Vietnamese: chuối)
3. Mango (Vietnamese: xoài)
4. Lotus (Vietnamese: sen)
5. Papaya (Vietnamese: đu đủ)
6. Wax Apple, aka Water Apple or Rose Apple (Vietnamese: mận)
7. Durian (Vietnamese: sầu riêng)
8. Jackfruit (Vietnamese: mít)
9. Rambutan (Vietnamese: chôm chôm)
10. Orange (Vietnamese: cam)
11. Pomelo / Grapefruit (Vietnamese: bưởi) – Thanks to reader Keith for the clarification!
12. Lotus (Vietnamese: sen)
13. Dragon fruit (Vietnamese: thanh long)
So, how did you do on the fruit quiz? Which Vietnamese fruits have you tried and which is your favorite?