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Strange Fruit

[whitespace] fruit Photograph by Michael Amsler

A taste of the exotic keeps the fruit bowl interesting

By Marina Wolf

IN A FIT OF DARING (and inspired by the looming deadline of this article), I recently headed into my local Asian grocery store and bought a durian. I had heard of it often--usually followed by the word stinks and the fact that one Southeast Asian country prohibits the carrying of this fruit on public transportation on the grounds that one broken durian on the floor could cause a stampede on the bus. But, they say, once you get past the smell--like very strong, moldy cheese--it's supposed to taste delicious, like exotic fruit salad.

So in the spirit of exploration, I thought I'd finally give the fruit a try.

Unfortunately, I was so chicken about this tropical fruit that I never got to eat it: the first one, left out on the front porch because I was afraid to even bring it into the house, was overrun by ants (who obviously didn't care about the smell), and the second one, sitting on the counter this time, smelled so strange that by the time I sucked up my guts to even look in the bag, it had developed a fine gray web of mold.

The moral of the story is: oranges are not the only fruit.

It's challenging to keep up with changes in the produce aisle, as ethnic cuisines make inroads and gourmet menus demand increasingly obscure ingredients. In addition, the back-
to-basics movement has done
its share in bringing old-time ingredients--rhubarb, quinces, Damson plums--to consumers who at most may have read about quince jelly in a Jane Austen novel. Whether we're looking back or moving forward, one thing is for sure: "How in the hell do you eat/cook this?" is not a put-down.

It's a cry for help.

The first step toward solving the problem is admitting there is a problem. This holds true in fruit phobia as well. I've found that simply asking around will bring a flood of advice, family recipes, and handy mnemonic devices for remembering such complicated formulae about what the different varieties of persimmon are and when they're ready to eat (Fuyu =Flat-ended, or, alternately, 'eat when Firm').

durian The durian: Sticky, stinky, strange

Photograph by Michael Amsler

SOMETIMES the fruit itself isn't the mystery, only the way to extract it with the least mess or energy expended. I call this functional inscrutability, and cooking shows are the cure. Those TV cooks give away all kinds of tips on their programs, some admittedly beyond the reach of any cook without an ax and a three-person prep staff, but many very sensible.

It was one of these shows, maybe Martha Stewart, that taught me how to peel and prep pomegranates without getting bloodlike splatters on my nice white walls: do it under water.

Mangoes, too, cause problems in the pulp-removal department. So much good flesh, green in Asian salads and chutneys, ripe over ice cream or just eaten standing by the kitchen sink (Miss Manners advocates this as the preferred method of consumption). But if you're determined to get the good stuff out on a plate, here's a trick: Slice the flatter sides off the pit; score the cut sides down to but not through the skin, then press the outside of those pieces in. You get something that looks like the head of a scrub brush, with the scored side becoming a bristle of little cubes sticking out, ready to cut off.

THESE ARE the things you can watch or listen and learn. But there are other fruits that fall into the "what the hell" category. These are the ones that evoke strong reactions among those who have tried them, and utter trepidation among those who haven't. Like my ill-fated durians. It's not their fault that I lost the struggle with my apparently deep-seated food taboos. It's my upbringing as a middle-class American that has led me to unconsciously check any new fruits for certain sets of characteristics.

For starters, any fruits that don't fit right in the lunchbox are usually problematic. You have Mexican papayas on one end of the spectrum--actually, you'd need two lunchboxes to hold one--and on the other end you have the bitty fruits such as lychees and kumquats. (Of course, kumquats have their own name-brand problems, but candied they make an excellent end to a rich meal.) There's also the issue of price. The usually high cost per pound of inscrutable fruits only adds to the mystique, and is a definite deterrent to trying something and possibly messing up your $10-per-pound purchase.

fruit Photograph by Michael Amsler

Then there's the whole "It's Alive" phenomenon. Like me, a lot of folks have strong first reactions to things that look like something that Captain Kirk might have had to pull off of Dr. Spock's back. By this criterion, it's amazing that kiwi fruits made the foothold that they did; other fruits have really had to struggle. Coconuts are oversized and hairy, with a little orangutan face. Durians not only smell bad, but are strangely prehistoric in appearance, like baby stegasauruses that might uncurl and waddle away if you left them out in a field on a warm summer night.

It's hard to learn about these fruits. Sometimes the produce staff won't even know. Mainstream produce encyclopedias and food dictionaries are silent on many exotic fruits, and it's not usually something that you can call your mom about.

When in doubt, I go to the source: produce stockers, the ones with knives on their belts. Ask them for a taste, and they'll almost always oblige. They really want to sell you a few pounds of that exotic Buddha's hand citron (looks like Bart Simpson's head, smells like lemon and berries). For obvious reasons I couldn't do that with my durian, but every other piece of fruit is fair game.

And usually someone else wants to taste, which proves the saying: there is no such thing as a stupid question.

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From the January 6-12, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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