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Can you eat those? That was probably a question we asked often in Thailand when we came across yet another variety of fruit, nut, or berry. And usually, especially in the fenced perimeter of our town house, the answer was yes.
We took time to realize that certain items, to us merely features of our back yard, were actually edible. Take, for instance, the giant, blobby fruits. Adjacent to our swing set was a towering tree, a productive one. At certain times of year, it was laden with large, spiky growths that ranged from light green to shades of brown. By large, I mean two feet long–growing all the way up in the topmost branches. They must have averaged ten pounds each. We happily played under these ripening time bombs, and nobody thought a thing of it.
One day, we found out that this odd tree was actually bearing food. Our maid had known it all along. I have a vague memory of her chopping through the tough outer hull, darkened in color by now, to reveal a bright yellow interior, lined with elongated projections. Each formed a loose pocket for a large seed. A taste test revealed that the projections were slightly sweet, firm in texture, with a little juice. One had to watch the size of the bite taken, because the slippery fruit could slide down the throat unbidden. From then on, jackfruit–that was its name–showed up occasionally on our dinner table, its emptied yellow pockets arranged on a plate. We ate so little of it compared to the abundance on that tree that I wonder what became of the rest. Perhaps it was tricky, even risky, to harvest. It was best to allow the children to continue frolicking there and go on with life.
Other wild produce we knew, through instinct or experience, to be good for snacking. A second tree over our swing set produced long pods that we recognized. Pull apart the halves with a sequence of satisfying snapping sounds, and you could devour the savory green seeds within. The only drawback was the little pungent odor this snack left on one’s breath. We recognized these pods, probably from the village. They even had a name–mak aton. All the same, my mom said something about “checking with me before you eat things.” We had to argue with her, then. Because she just didn’t know, hadn’t done the botanical tours with friends back in the village.
A tree whose tiny, tart fruits we discovered on day one grew in the middle of a landscaped border edging our back patio. We were probably attracted to the tree because we saw the light green fruits, lined like little pumpkins, trembling in clusters up beyond our reach. A local acquaintance probably reassured us that yes, we could eat these things. So now we had a perfectly good reason to climb up into its branches.
We were not too disappointed that the fruits turned out to be sour. That was an excuse to get out the big bottle of fish sauce and make a dip, one with a layer of sugar-like sand at the bottom and hot pepper seeds floating at the top. On at least one occasion, a party consisting of us and our Thai friends picked a pile of the acidic berries and gathered around the little sauce bowl in a germy festival of smacking and double-dipping and diving deep into the mixture to scoop a bit of sugar in the next bite. And no one had to tell us how lucky we were to have this harvest of sour fruit right in our back yard.Published in