Specific Fruit in Vietnam – Part II
In last week’s edition, we looked at several minor fruits and discussed Vietnam’s fruit industry as to whether heirloom produce and old-school farming methods should really be considered inferior to the developed world. We will run through some of the more prolifically produced fruits and try to figure out what fruits to eat in Vietnam and when to eat them.
Should you really spend $10 on a small box of sad looking imported raspberries when you could try something exotic that is grown fresh nearby?
Let’s start with one we all know. When you go to the grocery store in many developed nations, there is only one type of banana to choose, which leads you to wonder about the cost of the highest efficiencies versus the benefit.
Bananas in Vietnam (Chuối / Chuoi)
Vietnam is a country awash in different bananas (around 30 varieties!), with virtually all regions of the country supporting some banana production. Some of the bananas are quite unique from what a typical global consumer sees. However, amidst the attempted merger of the two major banana giants this year, there has been increasing talk that Vietnam will be urged, one way or another, to industrialize its banana industry. Part of this discussion suggests that Vietnam should scrap some of its traditional banana cultivars and instead grow what the “global market” demands.
This notion, of global product homogenization, is one of the most lethal weapons against a rewarding international travel experience, for if a banana in the US is the same as it is in France and the same as it is in Vietnam, then there is nothing interesting about trying a banana in any of those places. Whereas, with Vietnam’s current banana industry, certain bananas in Vietnam are bananas that you will be hard pressed to find in the US or France, and thus, something special. It is these differences which are so rewarding to the travel experience.
As it happens, one of the most important and popular bananas (chuoi) in Vietnam (note that even with the assistance of a report from the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain entitled Banana cultivar names and synonyms in Southeast Asia, it is very difficult to have perfect accuracy with these names) is the Chuoi Tieu Nho variant. These are in the Cavendish family, which is the most popular international banana type, and thus are exported in addition to being used domestically.
One of these Vietnamese banana varietals is the Chuoi Cau (or Chuoi Ngu), which is a stubby banana with a thin peel and excellent sweet flavour and aroma. These closely resemble the ladyfinger or sugar banana as it is known in the West. These are one of your favourite bananas to eat in Vietnam. The current going rate for these bananas is approximately 17,500/kg ($0.37/lb).
Another type, called the Chuoi Bom, has a thicker peel, is a little larger and is more slender than the Chuoi Cau/Ngu. These are cheaper than the tastier, sweeter Cau/Ngu.
On certain nights, as you wander the streets, dotted with the lights of roadside restaurants and juice stands, you run into one of your favourite after-dinner establishments in Vietnam—the fried banana (Chuối chiên) vendor. These often use a domestic banana called Chuoi Tay (or Xiem or Xu or Su), which, before frying, are peeled, pressed down with the hand and then flattened between two pieces of glass. The spectacular result is a crunchy and chewy exterior with a creamy banana interior (although they could benefit from a dash of salt).
Not only are bananas used in Vietnam, but so are banana flowers, in salads and soups; banana stems, in dishes like Bún Riệu Cua (crab vermicelli soup); banana leaves, as a wrapper and in soups; and in some cases, the heart of the banana trunk. Of course, banana smoothies are a delightful treat as well.
Coconuts in Vietnam (Dừa / Dua)
Vietnam is within the top ten producers of cocounuts worldwide, with the so-called capital of coconut production being Ben Tre Province, located in southern Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Coconuts are harvested for the more obvious: coconut oil, coconut milk and coconut flesh, and the less obvious: coconut candy (popular in Ben Tre), coconut fibers (for doormats, brooms, rope, mulch, fuel, etc) and coconut shell-derived charcoal.
Coconuts are harvested year-round, but the high season runs from October or November until April. Most coconuts are indeed grown in the south but some are grown in central Vietnam, which has a different season.
Pineapples in Vietnam (Dứa / Dua in North; Thơm / Thom in South)*
Vietnam is somewhere around the tenth largest producer of pineapples worldwide, with the Philippines and Thailand being first and second, respectively (with both producing approximately five times that of Vietnam).
Most pineapple (>90%) grown for the fresh market worldwide is not exported. Rather the major pineapple export business is related to juice and canned fruit. Likewise, most of Vietnam’s pineapple-related export is not related to fresh pineapple, and thus it is safe for us to assume that most pineapple being sold on the street in Vietnam is locally grown fruit (with high seasons in April through August as well as around December).
Pineapples originated in South America and were brought to Southeast Asia by the Spanish. Vietnam primarily grows four different pineapples, the two traditional cultivars, which are loosely translated into meaning “theirs” (Tay) and “ours” (Ta), and the more recent, Smooth Cayenne and Singapore Spanish.
Ta pineapples (Dứa ta) appear to be low sugar, medium acidity cultivars that lack flavour but are mostly eaten fresh. It seems these are of the Red Spanish type. The pale/white flesh is more fibrous in nature.
Tay pineapples (Dứa tây) are high sugar cultivars within the Queen Victoria class, that are prized for eating fresh due not only to the sweetness but the texture. They are also used for juice. They are smaller than those found in the Cayenne class and are generally grown for domestic consumption.
Smooth Cayenne pineapples (Dứa không gai) are a class of pineapple, which is very popular in the USA, primarily utilized for canning and fresh consumption, with high acid and sugar content. This was the class of pineapple that was brought to the Philippines from Hawaii leading to a revitalization of the Filipino pineapple industry (which is now #1 in the world). If Vietnam can successfully produce this class, it will solidify its standing as a pineapple producer, but would this be detrimental to its other cultivars? In any case, the smooth Cayenne is the standard pineapple that is grown for export.
Singapore Spanish pineapples (Dứa mật) are a small-sized variant, with low sugar and acid, primarily utilized for canning, as the raw fruit lacks flavour. Singapore Spanish is is also utilized for its juice which is of high quality.
Given all this, if you want to eat fresh pineapple, you should seek out the Tay pineapples, as you can easily get the Cayenne and Red Spanish in the USA and the Singapore Spanish isn’t a great type to eat fresh.
*This word without diacritics is the same as for coconuts, but the diacritics show that a rising intonation on the U for pineapple but a falling intonation on the U for coconuts, hence, two different words.
Mango fruit in Vietnam (Xoài / Xoai)
Mangoes are grown in most of southeast Asia and have been for over a thousand years. Vietnam’s mangoes, which are used when green (immature) when pale yellow (mature) in color, mostly come from the south. Vietnamese mangoes are both eaten domestically (fresh, smoothies, salads, etc.) and exported.
As noted, the Vietnamese utilize mango both green and ripe, with the green mango being used for its crisp texture and sour flavour. For instance, it might be paired with fried fish to provide a nice crunchy tartness against the sweet sauce applied to the delicate fish.
As for the yellow mango, virtually all the variants in Vietnam are excellent. One of the most popular is the Cat Hoa Loc mango, which is floral and sweet. As a note, there are mango cultivars that have green exteriors and sweet yellow interiors, such as the acclaimed Mộc Châu, so the green vs. yellow system (e.g. immature vs mature) is not a perfect rule.
Pumelo in Vietnam (Bưởi / Buoi)
Pumelos are giants in the citrus family with a flavour that is sometimes quite delicate and/or nearly non-existant. They also have very thick rinds, which help protect them against damage (but also might trick you into thinking you are buying more fruit than you were first hoping).
Pumelos, in theory, make a great fruit to try multiple times throughout Vietnam, as it is grown from north to south, and different provinces have different pumelos. Thus, rather than having one or two pumelos that cover the country, you find yourself hopping from different pumelo to different pumelo as you traverse the country.
The Da Xanh is one very high quality pumelo to seek out. It is grown primarily in Ben Tre and Tien Giang provinces, in the Mekong Delta (south of Saigon). While some get exported, the vast majority are eaten locally, although they are double the price of some of the other popular variants. As such, many locals prefer the cheaper pumelos for personal consumption due to budgetary concerns. Currently the da xanh is going for approximately 65,000VND/kg ($3/kg) which seems excessive, as it is double the price of a year ago.
The Da Xanh is said to have a strong, sweet flavour with a perfect acid counterbalance unlike some of the weaker, “delicate” types readily available in the USA. Your chances of finding one increase, not only by being in the Mekong (or by dining at an upscale restaurant in Saigon), but by looking for pumelos that are round, and not pear-shaped (pear-shape pumelo pictured above). The skin should be green (potentially with a slight bit of yellow) and, if a display item is cut open for you to inspect, the pink interior should have seeds.
You tried one of these and it was a terrible pumelo, lacking in flavour. You will give it another couple tries.
If you are in the northern part of the country, there is another prized variant called the Phuc Trach Pumelo which can be found approximately 400km(250mi) south of Hanoi (a railway stop on the Hanoi-Saigon route) in Phuc Trach. That comes into season around August.
The season for pumelos varies somewhat, but generally most pumelos are harvested between June and early-February, with the majority peaking in October, November and December (north to south). However, there are techniques that allow farmers to get the pumelo to flower throughout the year so it is possible to have locally-grown pumelos “out of season”, just expect the price to note that.
Sapodilla in Vietnam (Hồng xiêm / Hong xiem)
Native to Central America, the brown-skinned sapodilla grows in both northern and southern regions in Vietnam. In northern Vietnam, sapodilla can be harvested year-round whereas the southern harvest typically takes place during the winter (November–February).
Sapodilla has a concentrated brown-sugar-caramel flavour with hints of pear. It certainly has an abundance of sugars, and the addition of a squeeze of an acidic citrus makes a nice complement. The harvest and the post-harvest procedure is very important to ensure the sapodilla is fit for consumption. After picking at the specific time, it needs to be stored until it softens.
Interesting enough, the Sapodilla is one of the trees that was utilized for its sap, which was used to make chewing gum. There are several reasons why this is no longer the case, but that is a story for another day. In any case, the important of the sapodilla tree as summarized nicely by the Rainforest Alliance
The sapodilla tree supplies the building blocks for a number of products utilized by humans. Long ago, the Mayas and Aztecs would boil its ‘chicle’ sap, mold it into thick blocks and cut them into small pieces to chew. They were making the first chewing gum! In 1866, former Mexican president General Santa Anna brought a sample of chicle sap to a New York businessman named Thomas Adams. Adams decided to mix sugar with the chicle, creating a new kind of chewing gum. Producing chicle is a labor-intensive process. A worker, called a chiclero, must hand harvest the sap from individual trees by climbing up to 50 feet in order to make zigzag cuts down the tree, which releases the sap that is then collected in containers. The sapodilla is also prized for its fruit, considered one of the best fruits in Central America. It can be eaten raw or made into jam, custard, ice cream and sherbet. The fruit and leaves are used in traditional medicine to treat diarrhea, coughs and colds. The sapodilla wood is a deep red color, strong and durable — it was used for lintels and beams in Maya temples, which remain intact among the ruins of the Maya buildings. Today, the timber is used for railway crossties, floorings, tool handles, furniture and cabinets.
To eat them, cut in half and scoop out the flesh, remove the seeds (which are not good to have hooked in your throat).
Soursop fruit in Vietnam (Mãng cầu / Mang cau)
Native to Central and South America, the soursop is a spiny, green fruit off an evergreen tree. The fruit is a white juicy pulp that is creamy like a banana but has a wonderful acidity due to the malic and citric acids. They work very well in smoothies and are popularly enjoyed that way in Vietnam.
Papaya fruit in Vietnam (Đu Đủ / Du Du)
The high season for the papaya is from August to February, with availability year-round. Just as with the mango, papayas are used in Vietnam in both their immature and mature form, with green papaya being used in dishes such as salads, and the mature orange papaya being used as a fruit and dessert.
The flesh, which ranges between red, yellow and orange depending on the variant, is soft upon maturity and sweet.
Star Apple fruit in Vietnam(Vú Sữa / Vu Sua)
Vú Sữa translates to breast milk. It is also known as the milk fruit, cainito, or the star apple. The breast milk reference is to its milky white juicy flesh inside. The star apple reference is to its star pattern when cut in a cross-section. While many star apples are purple, the popular star apple in Vietnam is green. The exterior yields to gentle pressure.
There are several ways to eat it. One is to roll it or massage it (while whole) in an effort to break up the insides. Then you can put a hole in it and drink the contents. Another method is to cut it into halves and scoop out the flesh after some mashing. The last method is to peel the skin off and eat it whole (which is the messiest method).
The season in Vietnam is November through April.
Dragon Fruit in Vietnam (Thanh Long)
Vietnam produces a lot of dragon fruit (aka pitaya), a cactus vine plant native to Central & South America. Unfortunately, despite great international demand, the price to farmers has gotten to be as low as .05USD per kilo, or less than 3 cents a pound this year because the vast majority of dragon fruit grown in Vietnam is unacceptable for export due to disease-caused surface defects. So while foreign markets are clamoring for dragon fruit, it is instead being dumped on the sides of Vietnamese roads for the cows to eat (due to surface defects which don’t impact the inner fruit).
As noted here:
Hugo Co, an experienced fruit exporter to the U.S. based in Ho Chi Minh City, could not buy a single kilogram of the red-skinned fruit over the last month to ship to other countries.
“There is a 60 to 80 metric ton demand for the tropical fruit in the U.S., but we could not fulfill any order to this market due to short supply,” company chairman Vuong Dinh Khoat said.
An interesting thing about dragon fruit is that it only blooms at night and is naturally pollinated by moths, bats and other nocturnal creatures. By the time daybreak comes, the flower is gone. Further, these plants—which are productive for about 20 years—are very productive, with vines that can weigh 100kb (220lbs) after several years.
In any case, there is plenty of local dragonfruit to go around in Vietnam. The flavour is soft, perhaps so delicate you might reasonably argue it doesn’t have much flavour at all. Regardless, the visual stimulation of the fruit leads those overseas to hold it as an exotic fruit in high regard and pay $10/lb for it at Whole Foods.
To eat it, slice in half lengthwise and scoop out the seed-flecked flesh with a spoon. Refrigeration before eating is a nice twist as well.
Watermelon in Vietnam (Dưa hấu / Dua Hau)
Experts believe that watermelons are native to Africa, and then made their way to Asia via India. As an interesting current data point, China produces approximately 20 of every 30 watermelons (by weight) worldwide. The next four countries combined, produce only 3 of every 30.
Vietnam is not a major watermelon producing nation, and is outside of the top five, but the relevance to us is that with a giant producer to the north, it wouldn’t be shocking if some (or many) of the watermelons in Vietnam between May to September—China’s harvest season—were not domestically grown. Since Vietnam’s watermelon high-season runs from December through August, most watermelons in the winter and spring are probably Vietnamese.
Rambutan (Chôm chôm / Chom chom)
The Rambutan is said by most to be native to Malaysia or Indonesia and is now quite common to much of southeast Asia (with Thailand being the leading producer) as well as places like Hawaii and Puerto Rico. In Vietnam, it is grown in the Mekong Delta and is harvested during the rainy season (May through early-November). The type you want is called chom chom nhan which is superior to chom chom java.
Mature Vietnamese rambutan are red spiny hair-covered evergreen berries, about the size of a ping pong ball. The “hairs” are pliable and thus pose no danger to human touch and the peel can be removed with a fingernail or the fruit can be popped out with gentle pressure. The interior is a juicy white flesh—texturally similar to the flesh of a grape—which encapsulates a hard inedible seed.
You definitely want to see out the rambutan when visiting Vietnam during rainy season. In the rural sections of the south, you will surely pass by roadside sellers. In the cities, like Saigon, you might happen across sellers pushing carts full of the fruit. Or, you can always head to a produce market and do your bidding there.
Because the fruit does not ripen once picked, it is said that the best way to buy rambutan are when they are still attached to a branch. Further, the shelf life of rambutan is impacted by moisture loss. When looking at the rambutan, black tips on the hairs are the first sign that freshness is waning.
Jackfruit in Vietnam (Mít / Mit)
Your first experience with jackfruit was in Australia, where you were face to face with the largest fruit you’ve ever seen. The large oval fruit hung off the tree, with its spiked exterior and bland colouration. You tried some jackfruit ice-cream, thought it a novelty and left jackfruit in the past. Now here you are in Vietnam and sure enough, jackfruit is back in focus.
Jackfruit is a low-acid fruit used in smoothies, soups (usually the immature fruit) and eaten fresh. The fruit, which serves both domestic and export markets, is also canned, dried and frozen. The seed, after boiling or roasting, can be eaten and resemble chestnuts. The wood is used for furniture, instruments and building.
The jackfruit season is March through June in the south. Jackfruit are also grown in the north but the harvest season is not clear.
Sampling Fruit in Vietnam
What follows is the fruits you have tried from mid-October to mid-November. The time range is important due to the seasonality of fruits in Vietnam. Some of these fruits would be much better at different times of year. Others would be worse. Thus, for the data-point of fruit tried in the October/November period:
- The watermelon has been excellent.
- The durian was better than expected.
- Some of the strawberries have been great, and others have been a little ragged. These must be Chinese strawberries due to season.
- The guava, and its surprisingly muted flavour, has been disappointing.
- The passion fruit has been very nice.
- The mango, which is one of those fruits that always seems better in southeast Asia than elsewhere, has been mostly excellent.
- The bananas, depending on type, have been good to excellent depending on type.
- The pumelos have been terrible, lacking flavour.
- The larger pineapples have for the most part lacked acidity and flavour.
- The rambutan have been nice.
- The milkfruit has been fine, but ends with a strange flavour note
- The longan has been very good (although not a favourite).
- The calamansi are good although most people do not typically eat it.
- The limes and the magical limeades they produce have been a delight, which, speaking of juices…
High Season for Fruit in Vietnam
It was an immense amount of research trying to figure out what is in season when in Vietnam. Many different sources have conflicting information, making things quite hard. Furthermore, some denote high season and some do not. Since the point is to try to figure out when Vietnamese grown fruit is in season, we used high season as the primary indicator (as that would mean lower prices, higher supply and potentially less need for imports).
Next week you leave Saigon for a getaway. Hope to have that coming soon. In process is also some custom tailoring in Vietnam, a look at Saigon’s District 1, and a few other blasts.
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