Samui Wining & Dining
Tropical Pick

June’s Fruit of the Month – The Zalak.


4There’s a lot of fruit in Thailand – lots of different kinds, too. Weird ones, tiny ones, spiky ones – all sorts. It’s one of the fun things about being in Thailand. Particularly when you realise that for a couple of baht, you can buy, say, a dragon fruit that will cost you two or three Euros back home.

      And all this fruit isn’t just refreshing and tasty to eat. You wouldn’t believe the things people do with it – particularly if you include the wood of the trees, the bark, sap, roots and leaves. For instance, did you know that cashew nuts are used in the making of Madeira wine? Or that the wood of the jackfruit tree is used to make the saffron-coloured dye that Buddhist monks use to colour their robes? And talking of dragon fruit, they contain lycopene – a natural anti-oxidant that combats cancer, allays heart disease and lowers blood pressure. But I digress.

       This month’s fruit wears a number of different hats. In Indonesia, it’s called salak, although the more proper spelling is zalac. In Thailand, the same word has slipped a little and become sala – although it’s more commonly known as ra gam (say it ‘ra-GAM’). More grandly, the scientific name is the rather wonderful salacca zalacca – and no, it’s not a Tunisian rap singer (repeat it to yourself a few times and you’ll see what I mean!).

      This strange little fruit was originally found growing in Indonesia. And it was somewhere in the 16th century that it began its journey around the tropics, promoted by the many Portuguese traders of that period. It can be found in southern areas of India, the Philippines, down through Malaysia and Singapore, and with some varieties taking kindly to life in the warmer parts of Australia. In Thailand, it favours the wet, and flourishes in the rainy season.

       The ra gam has been wittily described as the ‘fruit accessory most favoured by the fashion-conscious traveller’. If that seems a bit obscure to you, have a close look at it. It looks just like it’s covered in snakeskin – a deep red snakeskin, with the tips of the scales ending in harmless, tiny black points. And it’s therefore, quite obviously, just the thing to match your chic designer luggage – even the name, ‘salak’, means ‘snake’, in Indonesian. Well, it would be cute to have some to go with your luggage, except for one small thing. It doesn’t smell so wonderful.

       Have you experienced durian? I mean, have you ever been within ten feet of a peeled one? If you have, you’ll know what I mean, as the stink is beyond description. Well – the ra gam is a kind of scaled-down, mini durian prototype. It has a positive odour, although nothing quite as frightening as that of the durian. And, in line with this, although it’s sweet, the durian’s so much sweeter. Actually, the ra gam is not really that sweet – it’s an odd mixture of sweet and sour. It’s really quite pleasant. Mostly, it’s eaten at room temperature – usually straight from the shop or stall. But when kept in the fridge, the chilled ra gam is much more refreshing, particularly with a cup of coffee at breakfast time.

      It’s a particularly easy fruit to eat. Simply pinch off the pointed end and peel back the skin to reveal the firm flesh. You’ll find there are two or three segments, and the largest of these will contain a big, shiny, black seed, which is inedible. Incidentally, you can always tell when you’re sitting where someone has recently eaten some ra gam. The table will be covered with what looks like black dandruff. As you handle and peel the fruit, those tiny black tips at the end of the scales flake off and drop to the nearest surface!

      Actually, the salacca zalacca is a member of the palm family, but this particular branch doesn’t get to be too tall. And like all families, it has its brothers and sisters. Many of these have adapted to cooler climates, and are often grown as ornamental houseplants. So when you get home, take a good look around. You might be able to spot one in a neighbour’s house, or in a nursery or a hothouse somewhere. It should be easy enough to identify – just take a look underneath. If the ground’s covered in black dandruff, you’re on the right track!


Rob De Wet


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