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Plum goes the coconut

Jerry Pinto writes on maathai, the rare fruit he tasted in Vietnam, that looked like a piece of coal.

india Updated: Jun 04, 2008 17:43 IST
Jerry Pinto

In our youth, we would eat a fruit that looked like a piece of coal and tasted of nothing so much as the crunch in our mouth.

The seller would cut it open and we would peel bits of it, take off the black peel and then eat the white interior.
The exercise was powered, I think, not by the taste but because of the odd feeling one got of subversion.

One was eating a mineral and no one could actually disapprove. The big thing to do with the peels was to press them on to one's face and to try and cover as much of it as possible with it and go around shouting, "I'm from Africa, I'm from Africa". We were nothing if not politically incorrect.

In the middle of the old quarters of Hanoi, I chanced upon something that resembled the coal fruit of my youth. The lady assured me it was called maathaai but with a whole load of clicks and glottal stops that made the word sound very different when I said it.

Some description
The maathai looks like a plum that has put on the headgear of a baby coconut. This is peeled off, the hard testa, the palomological word for the skin of a fruit, is chipped away by the delicate fingers of the lady seller.

Almost all the food stalls and all the handcarts and all the street sellers in Vietnam seem to be women. Well, then about two dozen are popped into a plastic bag and handed to you.

They are now completely unrecognisable, having turned pure white. (If you forget about them and leave a few in your bag for a few days, they turn yellow and smell as if you were trying your hand at home brewing. They ooze too. This exercise is not recommended.) I offer the packet around to the people I am traveling with. No one is interested. Many of the packets I buy are treated in the same way.

If you want a glass of juice to go, you get it in a plastic bag, which is tied up at the top and then punctured skillfully with the sharp end of a straw.

At first bite, you are reminded of sugarcane. There's the same crunch but as you chew on the taste changes. It becomes sweeter and notes of berry and oak and verdigris show up.

Bite by bite
(Actually, they don't but I thought it would sound better if I could identify what this thing tasted like.) If anything, it begins to taste like a targola first and then goes on to have a kind of marshmallow generic sweetness.

"It's nice," I say and gingerly, one by one, each takes a bite.

"Should I spit?" asks one?

I have finished chewing and it seems safe to swallow. There's a whole lot of fibre floating around inside it but it isn't difficult to swallow. Waiting to discover Few things beat biting into a new fruit in a new city while walking down a bridge called the sunbeam and watching the rain startle the tourists by the side of a lake.

PS: If anyone knows the actual name of the fruit in the picture, please let me know. After I came back I tried to locate it on the Internet.

While Vietnam takes pride in its fruit, no trace of this one showed up. My delight in this discovery - that no one else had ever written about this fruit before - will be tainted by knowledge but I will recover.