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A Fruit For All Seasons

A Fruit For All Seasons

Story by Ron Emmons / CPA Media (11 March, 2022)

There are plenty of reasons for visiting or living in Thailand – the friendly, helpful people, the glittering temples, the soft, sandy beaches – the list goes on and on. One aspect of the country that is not mentioned so often, but continues to surprise and delight newcomers, is the fantastic range of fruits that are available throughout the year. In fact, anyone who enjoys discovering new tastes could spend virtually all their time here exploring the markets for unusual seasonal fruits, and they would not be disappointed. From durians to jackfruits, from mangoes to mangosteens, from lychees to longans, the bounty of Thailand's orchards seems to know no limits. So let's take a look at a few of the tastiest seasonal fruits.

The hot season, from March to June, can be oppressive with temperatures hovering around 40 degrees Centigrade, yet consolation comes in the form of some of the most delicious fruits that come into season at this time, including the durian, the lychee and the mango. The odour of a durian, often compared unflatteringly to a pair of unwashed socks, is enough to deter many from tasting it. Yet anyone brave enough to ignore the nasal evidence and sink their teeth into its soft and gooey flesh will soon realize why Thais call it ‘the king of fruits'. Its creamy texture and tangy taste is unlike that of any other fruit, as original as the spiky shell that protects it and looks like an instrument of medieval torture. Selecting a durian that is perfectly ripe is a difficult task, so get a Thai friend to help you.

Bright crimson clusters of lychees begin to appear on market stalls in April, and immediately attract swarms of buyers like bees to a honeypot. Thais go crazy for the sweet but tart taste of the whitish pulp that is revealed behind the peel, and can easily devour several kilos at one sitting. There are many varieties of lychee, including some that have tiny seeds and lots of flesh and sell for much higher prices than regular varieties, yet still find plenty of takers.

Mangoes also come in many varieties, with different shapes, sizes and tastes. The peak season for ripe mangoes is around May, when mango and sticky rice is one of the most popular dishes. The chewy rice makes a perfect compliment to the soft but tangy fruit, and it is often topped off with sesame seeds and coconut milk to make an unforgettable dessert. Thais themselves love unripe mangoes even more than the ripe version. They dip it in chilli powder and salt, then crunch on the crisp and sour flesh with obvious delight. This manner of eating fruit is quite alien to Western visitors to the country.

Things get even better during the rainy season, from July to October, when several hot-season fruits are still available, but are joined on market stalls by such treats as the jackfruit, the mangosteen and the longan. The jackfruit is an amazing fruit, growing directly from the trunk of the tree on a thick stalk, and weighing in at up to 50kg when ripe. However, the challenge is to get it off the tree without it dropping and exploding, then to patiently pluck out the yellow segments from the sticky latex that surrounds them. The flesh has a pleasant, chewy texture, and a zesty taste that makes all the work worthwhile. Thais also like to harvest the unripe fruit when it is about the size of a rugby ball to make a jackfruit curry, which has a nutty texture and is one of the most unique of all Thai dishes.

The mangosteen, which despite its name is nothing like a mango, is much easier to harvest, being no bigger than a tennis ball, with a thick, deep-purple skin. It is also much easier to get at the fruit of the mangosteen than that of the jackfruit. Simply slit round the circumference, or gently break it apart, to reveal a smaller ball of pearly-white segments of varying size. Seventeenth-century traveller Christopher Frycke said that its segments "melt like butter on the tonge and are of so fine and refreshing a taste that I have never met with any fruit comparable to it". Take care not to eat it too fast, however, as some segments contain a bitter core that is not to be eaten.

One of the best-loved fruits by Thais is the lamyai, or longan, which grows mostly in the North around Chiang Mai. When it comes into season in August and September, there is a virtual stampede in fresh markets as people buy up clusters of the brown-skinned fruit from vendors. Like the lychee, the longan has a whitish, sometimes almost translucent, flesh beneath the easily peeled skin, and also has a shiny seed inside. The texture is also similar to lychees, but the taste is less acidic. Thais will munch through mounds of longans while chatting idly, and this is clearly their idea of Heaven on Earth. The tree is easy to spot as its branches must be supported as the clusters of fruit mature, so the trunk is surrounded by wooden props. The celebration of the longan season includes a Longan Fair in Lamphun, at which longan growers display their prize fruits proudly, and local beauties compete for the title of ‘Miss Longan'.

The cool season in Thailand is a period of regeneration for most Thai fruit trees, though the markets are still packed with fruits that grow year-round, such as watermelons, bananas and coconuts. However, this is also peak time for the sweet tangerines that make a delightful orange juice, as well as strawberries. The 'store-belly' (a Thai approximation of the English name) may not be native to Thailand, but is a good indicator of how Thais readily embrace certain aspects of foreign culture (other examples being Christmas and Scotch whisky) as their own. Of course, for visitors to the kingdom from northern climes during this time, it brings the opportunity to enjoy the sharp and sweet taste of this much-loved fruit, perhaps smothered with a generous layer of cream. With such a wonderful range of fruits to taste, any season is a good time to be in Thailand.

Text by Ron Emmons; Photo by Ron Emmons - CPA Media