Samui Wining & Dining
Tropical Pick

August’s fruit of the month – the longan


8There are small ones and there are big ones – some are even as big as your head. They come in lots of different shapes, too. Some of them look really weird, like something from another planet. Others – well, you’d probably not even notice if they were on the table in front of you. And, in Thailand, they’re everywhere you look. But they’ve all got one thing in common. Each and every one are fabulous to eat.

      It’s probably true to say that tropical fruit is generally much sweeter than its cousins from colder climes. And there’s far more variety in the tropics, too – and they can grow to much bigger sizes. But, as already mentioned, not all of them are big or gaudy. The longan, in fact, is very plain looking – a dull, matt beige colour. And it’s small, too: somewhere between half an inch and an inch across. And when you discover that this little, round fruit has a great big seed inside, it almost makes you wonder why people bother with it. I mean – by the time you’ve peeled it and pulled the seed out, there’s nothing like as much flesh as you thought you were going to get. But the answer to this one’s simple. It’s deliciously sweet, and mouth-wateringly juicy.

      It may surprise you to know that Thailand has very few fruits that were actually born and bred here. In fact, this is true of many countries. But in the late 16th century, European explorers began to travel the world – and new fruit trees and seeds were one of the things traded from one region to another.

      The longan was originally found growing in China, along with the lychee, which, once peeled, it closely resembles. And, 400 years ago, it found its way across to India and down to Indochina (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam). It continued its travels to Hawaii, but, curiously, came to a halt, short of the Mexican border. No, nothing to do with bandits, but more with the hurricane season in the Florida region – longans just hate wind and rain. And it’s odd that it didn’t take kindly to South America, either – most tropical fruits thrive in the warmer, northern countries. And one other strange thing - it grows very happily in Malaysia, but for some reason, completely refuses to bear any fruit there!

      One of the reasons that they are so popular in Thailand is that, (unlike the lychee) longans thrive in this climate, and produce prolific crops. In fact, the shabby little longan is Thailand's leading fruit export, beating even the durian and pommelo with the income that it generates. Although one of the names it’s known by in English is ‘dragon eye’, you’ll be much better understood in Thailand if you ask for it with its Thai name – lamyai pa. Or you could just point and smile – that usually works quite well.

      To go about eating one of these tropical delights, there’s no special technique. Simply peel it and nibble! Although experienced longan-eaters have mastered the art of tearing the leathery skin (with a fingernail) at the stem end, and then, by squeezing the opposite end firmly, popping-out the whole fruit straight into their mouths.

       As with most fruits, the seeds are not eaten. And in this case, you wouldn’t want to – they’re so big! They’re actually very pretty – jet-black, round and shiny, and with a circular white spot at the base. It looks not unlike an eyeball – hence the name ‘dragon eye’.

      In the last few years, there’s been a growing awareness that many tropical plants contain substances that are curative or restorative. For example, dragon fruit contains lycopene. This is a natural anti-oxidant and it’s been proved to combat cancer, allay heart disease and lower blood pressure; mangosteens also contain a similar agent. And the bark, sap, or roots of many of the tropical fruit trees contain tannin and can be used to produce medicines, dyestuffs or perfumes. In the case of the longan it has been found to produce – nothing. You can eat it, and it’s great in a fruit salad – but that’s it. Although I did read somewhere that, in Vietnam, if you get bitten by a snake, it is traditional to press the white eye of the seed against the puncture.

         On Samui, you’ll come across a fruit stall on just about every street. And it’s great fun to sample the local fruits, many of which you may not have seen outside a tin before. And, anyway, fruit tastes far better fresh, with no preservatives or additives. But don’t forget that fruit doesn’t have to be flashy to taste good. And it doesn’t have to be big, either. In fact, many exciting things come in small, brown packages!


Rob De Wet


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