Taste of Thailand

I’ve been in Bangkok and Chiang Rai the last couple of days on a group tour hosted by Olbrich Gardens’ Director of Horticulture Jeff Epping. Although most of the activities so far have been cultural in nature (temples, the Grand Palace, etc.) we did visit some of the local flower and produce markets that offer a vast variety of exotic fare. Of most interest to the group has been the fruit – all kinds of things that are only rarely (if ever) seen in the states. Our local guide Apisit has been purchasing different things for us to taste along the way.

Some tropical fruits grown here that most people in Wisconsin have never tried (and maybe not even heard of) include:

Rambutan – these hairy-looking fruits are in the same plant family as lychee. Inside the leathery exterior with its pliable spines is an almost translucent white globe that contains a single glossy brown seed. The juicy flesh is mildly sweet and mildly acidic with a slightly gummy texture and flavor somewhat like a grape. The tree (Nephelium lappaceum) is native to Indonesia and grows naturally in Thailand, but is cultivated around the world in tropical countries.

Rambutans

Rambutans

Mangosteen – rounded, somewhat flattened purple globes that contain 4-7 white segments when opened. They are just a little tart, but mostly sweet for a refreshing burst of flavor. This tropical tree (Garcinia mangostana) is from Indonesia.

Mangosteen in a local market, and cut open.

Mangosteen in a local market, and cut open.

Dragon fruit – is a large red fruit from an epiphytic cactus, Hylocereus undatus. It has a thin red skin and white flesh speckled with tiny black seeds, with a fairly bland flavor.

Dragon fruits in a local market (L), prepared to eat (C) and growing on posts (R).

Dragon fruits in a local market (L), prepared to eat (C) and growing on posts (R).

Longon – this brown skinned fruit with a translucent white interior surrounding a black seed is another lychee relative, but is a little more sour and less juicy than lychee. The tree Dimocarpus longan is native to southern China.

Cluster of longon fruits.

Cluster of longon fruits.

Finger bananas – just like regular bananas, but in miniature (about the size of a finger, hence the common name) and with a little sweeter flavor.

Finger banana.

Finger banana.

Rose apple – a crunchy fruit completely unrelated to our apples, this ridged, pear-shaped tropical fruit comes from one of the tropical trees in the genus Syzygium (possibly samarangens, but they all look similar). It has a thin light red skin and white or cream flesh, and a bland to acidic flavor.

Rose apples for sale in a local market.

Rose apples for sale in a local market.

Jujube – picked unripe, the smooth, oval, light green fruit has a crunchy texture and mild flavor almost like a bland pear. When ripe it is closer to a date in flavor and texture. There are 40 species in the genus Ziziphus in the Buckthorn family, with several having edible fruit; these are Z. jujuba native to southern Asia.

Green jujube fruits, with one cut open.

Green jujube fruits, with one cut open.

We haven’t had the opportunity to try the notoriously stinky but supposedly incredible-tasting durian, but if we did get one, we would have had to consume it immediately as none of the hotels want this smelling up their premises.

No durians signs are common at hotels in Bangkok.

No durians signs are common at hotels in Bangkok.

Another fascinating food items in some of the local markets are the insects – yes, insects. In this region people collect the mature caterpillars of a crambid moth that infests bamboo stems, and eat them fried as a delicacy called “bamboo worms”. They have a taste and texture reminiscent of bad deep fried pork rinds. (Yes, I did try one).

Dried, fried bamboo worms for sale at a shop at a local tourist attraction.

Dried, fried bamboo worms for sale at a shop at a local tourist attraction.

You can also find a variety of deep fried insect for sale at food stands along with chicken, fish and shrimp.

Insets on the menu in Thailand.

Insets on the menu in Thailand.

At the night market in Chaing Ria there were grasshoppers, crickets, Jerusalem crickets, giant water bugs and silkworm pupae at one stand. I didn’t want to purchase a whole tray of them (although they weren’t very expensive at 30 baht per tray, so about $1) to taste just a couple and figured no one else would go for them. And those water bugs look way too crunchy to seem even remotely appealing to eat.

Fried insects offered at a food stand, including giant water bugs (R).

Fried insects offered at a food stand, including giant water bugs (R).