I’ve never been much of a fruit eater so when my acupuncturist, Dr. Phranee (not her real name), insisted I eat healthier by adding fruit to my diet, I bulked. Although I’ll eat an occasional apple, orange, tangerine or banana, and I can be persuaded to eat a handful of grapes, cherries and strawberries, from time to time, previous attempts to eat more fruit always ended the same way: with a hasty and generally unpleasant trip to the porcelain throne. Dr. Phranee, however, is an eastern medical practitioner who takes a proactive approach to her patient’s healthcare. When I admitted I hadn’t followed her “eat more fruit” advice after a couple of subsequent office visits, she started bringing me fruit from her own garden.
Dr. Phranee would wait until I walked up to the receptionist area to settle my bill and to schedule my next appointment, to appear with a plastic bag containing one of the many varieties of fruit growing in her garden.
Unfortunately, my Thai is poor and while Dr. Phranee’s English is better, she tried to convey a lot of information to me that was simply lost in translation. Still, I got the gist of what she was saying which was, “Eat this it’ll make you feel better.” I would thank her profusely for both her gift and her concern about my well being then I’d leave the office with a bag of strange looking fruit. I was too embarrassed to tell Dr. Phranee, if my Thai had been better and I could express myself properly, that I had no idea what to do with the fruit she had given to me.
For many westerners, fruit from Thailand is commonly referred to as “exotic fruit”, meaning it looks and tastes different than the varieties found in our native countries. As I mentioned earlier, my fruit eating habits were limited to a narrow range of choices and that’s the way I liked it. I would take Dr. Phranee’s fruit home and place them in the center of my table, where they’d remain until I was forced to dispose of them.
If it hadn’t been for my continuing bouts with poor health, I might have never taken steps to unravel the mystery of Dr. Phranee’s fruit. As I was hobbling around on a crutch down one of Bangkok’s notoriously crooked streets, after springing my ankle, I started to wonder if Dr. Phranee’s bag of fruit might actually help improve my general health. I resolved to eat the next bag of fruit she gave to me no matter how odd it looked.
Sure enough, at the end of my follow-up visit to Dr. Phranee’s office for my sprung ankle, she appeared with another bag of fruit. I thanked her for the fruit and held the bag up to take a closer look at its contents. Inside the bag, I saw what looked like from my western perspective, 3 large alien spawn eggs. The fruit was brownish-green and was covered in black-spike-like nodules. The green color threw me for a loop because like most westerners I think of green fruit as being unripe, (it is worth mentioning ripe oranges in Thailand are green! Yes, that’s right, green! A completely confusing situation for a person looking for orange juice because if you see a picture on a carton displaying orange colored fruit it’s usually NOT orange juice,). Green or not, Dr. Phranee said the fruit she gave me should be eaten right away.
During the cab ride home, I studied the strange looking fruit and tried to picture how it was eaten. When I arrived home, I put the bag of fruit in the center of my table and studied it some more. I had resolved to eat it but I didn’t know what part was even edible. Fortunately, my boyfriend Gabriel stopped by to see me a short time later. Gabriel is a professional soccer player from Cameroon. He trains constantly to stay in tip-top shape and he’s a health fanatic. Unlike me, Gabriel eats a lot of fruit.
He noticed the fruit on the table and asked me where I had got it. I told him my doctor had given it to me and he smiled, “Good!” he said. “We have fruit like this one in my country only they’re much bigger,” he said grabbing one of them from the table. He broke it open and handed a piece of it to me. I looked at the white pulpy mass inside the fruit and pushed it away. “What’s wrong with you? Try it,” he said. I looked at the piece of fruit in his hand and noticed large black things were inside of it, “Ugh! There’re bugs in it!” I yelled jumping up from the table. Gabriel laughed. “Those aren’t bugs, they’re seeds,” he said calmly removing one to show me. I had never seen such large seeds inside of fruit.
“Here, try it,” he said. I took the piece of fruit and touched the pulpy mass inside of it. “It’s soft Gabriel, I think it’s rotten,” I said. All my experience with fruit, up to that point, told me soft pulp was a sign of over-ripeness. Gabriel removed a section of the pulp from my piece of fruit and popped it into his mouth. He spit out the large back seed and ate the rest of it. I followed his lead and was surprised to discover a flavorful and tasty treat. The fruit had a sweet tangy flavor. It tasted like a cross between an apple and a grapefruit. “Mmmm,” I said, “This is good.” It really was delicious.
The next day, I showed one of the remaining pieces of fruit to a Thai neighbor who spoke English well. “Oh, you’ve got a custard apple there,” she said, “They’re quite tasty.” “Yes, I know,” I said sheepishly. Instead of breaking it open the way Gabriel had, she peeled off all the “black-spike-like-nodules” and suggested I cut the skinned fruit open and eat it like an orange. I now know there’s more than one way to eat a custard apple.
Living in a foreign country requires you to make a lot of adjustments. I’ve discovered the simple act of eating fruit can present you with an opportunity to expand your knowledge about a culture. Now that I know how to eat a custard apple, I’m ready to eat more of the strange looking but undoubtedly tasty fruit from Dr. Phranee’s garden.