Durian and 5 other strange tropical fruit

There are plenty of common tropical Southeast Asian fruits that haven’t gotten the attention of the outside world the same way the durian has.

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Deyana Goh
Deyana was born in Singapore and lives there. She is half-Chinese, half-Arab, with a grandmother who was born to an Arab family in Bogor, Indonesia. Deyana grew up eating Indonesian food as it is cooked in Arab-Indonesian households, and has fond memories of the festive whole chicken stuffed with lamb.

On October 15 2021, residents of a neighbourhood in Australia’s capital city, Canberra, caught a whiff of something strange and alarming. Panic ensued and firefighters were despatched over a suspected gas leak. You know how this story ends – it was but the humble durian.

To the uninitiated, the durian is an object of mystery. They turn their noses up at the durian, defaming it with various colourful adjectives describing its purported smell, and thereafter wonder why anybody would eat such a foul fruit. 

But to the initiated, the durian doesn’t smell bad at all. Shocking, but true. To the Indonesians, Singaporeans, Malaysians, Thais, and all other Southeast Asians, the durian does have a strong smell, but one that is perfectly acceptable and even pleasant. 

When this happens, it’s a sign that the mighty durian, known here as the King of the Fruits, has allowed you entry into its exclusive club. Many have tried to join it – just look at the number of Youtube and Tiktok videos of people attempting to enjoy the durian, and failing. But when you finally succeed, you realise that a whole world has opened up for you – a world of durian cakes, puddings, ice cream, and assorted other durian-flavoured products created to honour a fruit that’s a favourite of many in this region.

Today, the durian is a famous fruit. Not just because of its smell, which certainly played a huge part, but also because of its weird, thorny exterior. In fact, its very name, durian, comes from the Indonesian/Malay word duri-an, which translates approximately into “one with thorns”. Most people are surprised to see a soft, creamy interior that lies beneath its prickly exterior, and would admit that it tastes nothing like it smells.

But other than the durian, there are plenty of tropical Southeast Asian fruits that are quite common here, but haven’t gotten the attention of the outside world the same way the durian has. 

Mangosteen

Photo by Art Rachen.

The mangosteen (manggis in Indonesian) is the durian’s companion, and traditionally, share the same season. It’s much smaller than the durian and has a thick, purple skin, with firm white flesh. It’s tangy and tart, and complements the creaminess of the durian. In fact, in traditional medicine, it’s said to be a ‘cooling’ fruit that balances the durian’s ‘heatiness’.

Mangosteens are usually eaten fresh, as is, unlike the durian, which is frequently made into puffs, cakes, ice-creams, and other desserts.

Jackfruit

Photo by jaikishan patel.

A large fruit of the breadfruit family, jackfruit or nangka is a common fruit that almost rivals the durian in terms of its smell. You can smell the jackfruit from a mile away, and, like the durian, it is broken open to extract small, edible pieces of the fruit from pods.

Ripe jackfruit is extremely sweet, with flesh that’s firm and chewy. Usually, it’s eaten fresh or fried in flour to become a fritter. But jackfruit is also commonly cooked when it’s young or unripe, before it sweetens and softens. Young jackfruit is incorporated into savoury dishes, not sweet ones, and is often an integral part of stews and curries like gulai nangka.

Cempedak

Photo by EquatorialSky at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Cempedak, a fruit that has no English name, is similar to the jackfruit. In Indonesia, it goes by many names depending on the region. Like the jackfruit, it’s very sweet – probably even sweeter – but tastes quite distinct. Cempedak fruit is round, unlike jackfruit, which is bell-shaped. Like jackfruit, it’s often eaten fresh or fried, and or cooked when young and unripe.

Salak (Snake Fruit)

Photo by A. Prasetya Naharudin

Salak, or snake fruit, is one of the weirdest fruits you’ll ever encounter. It’s common in Indonesia and an important produce of Central Java, and is sometimes served in hotels in Bali to show off authentic Indonesian things. 

I like salak a lot, but it’s definitely an acquired taste – and sight. The reason it’s called snake fruit, which should be obvious from the picture, is that its skin looks just like a snake’s. The fruit looks like it has scales, and that should be enough to scare anybody off. And it tastes a bit strange, too – it is sweet but astringent, and has a crunchy but powdery texture that’s a bit like eating crispy sandpaper. 

Duku and Langsat

And Wikipedia gets it wrong again! According to the entry Lansium parasiticum (which is supposedly what the fruit is, although I’m personally offended that it has the word ‘parasite’ in its name) langsat and duku refer to the same fruit in different languages. This isn’t true, just as coriander and Chinese parsley are not the same thing.

Langsat and duku are two distinct fruits that are very, very closely related to each other. They look very similar to the longan, which in turn is an entirely different fruit from the lychee family. 

Langsat, duku and longan all have brown skins. But when you break open a longan, you’ll find one whole round fruit with a large seed in the middle. Langsat and duku, instead, consist of tiny individual fruits clumped together to form a round whole, each with its own seed. Like the salak, it’s sweet with some astringency. Its seeds are tiny and quite bitter, so you’re prone to biting the seed when eating the fruit.  Duku is a larger version of langsat, and is lessy juicy and more citrusy. Langsat stalks and branches are also usually dripping with sap, so be careful when eating it!

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