Samui Wining & Dining
Tropical Pick

December’s Fruit of the Month – The Pummelo.


16It’s like an orange, but bigger. Anyway, it’s not orange – it’s a pale yellowy-green colour. And it’s not a grapefruit either (although it looks quite a lot like one) – it’s too sweet for that. In fact, if you can imagine a marriage between a grapefruit and an orange, then the offspring might look like this. Except for the fact that, in reality, it’s the grapefruit’s father. Confusing, isn’t it? It’s a pummelo. And you’ll find the same fruit referred to as a ‘pomello’ or a ‘pomelo’ ¬– but this is a different thing, as we shall discover.

      The pummelo is the largest of all the citrus fruits. And it has a distinctive honour, which most of the fruit you’ll see in Thailand can’t claim. It’s actually native to this region. If that surprises you, consider this. In the 17th century, ships from Europe began to explore the globe. And many fruits and plants that were indigenous to India or South America found their way to Asia – including Thailand – where they flourished. And in the centuries that followed, such fruits became regarded as generally ‘tropical’. But in the case of the pummelo it worked the other way round, and in the late 17th century, pummelo seeds were taken away from their home in Thailand, and exported to the New World.

      Another unusual fact is that it’s actually known who was responsible for this. In 1696, an English officer by the name of Captain Shaddock stopped in Barbados, on his way home. And to this day, the pummelo is still known as a ‘shaddock’ in some parts of the Caribbean, and particularly in Jamaica.

      The pummelo continued on its world tour, and was received with great enthusiasm in America. Here it caused enough excitement for the Department of Agriculture to mount a safari, in 1912, to Bangkok – the purpose being to hunt down more and varied specimens. And, then, the pummelo finally ended its travels (in this direction) in the tropical regions of South America, not so long afterwards.

      As previously mentioned, there’s some confusion over its name. One of the reasons is that in Malaysia it’s called the pomelo. But, on top of this, something happened to really mess things up. It wasn’t until 1948 that the grapefruit appeared – and this was the result of crossing a pummelo with an orange. At the time, American horticulturists dismissed the name ‘grapefruit’, as it had no connection at all with grapes. And, thus, they proceeded to announce to the general public, that this new fruit was to henceforth be known as a ‘pomelo’.

      Academically speaking, this was undoubtedly far more appropriate. But none of the scientists had considered the practical effects of this new name. What it meant, was that nobody knew if they were talking about a big, sweet thing or a big, sour one. The two names sounded identical – ‘pummelo’ and ‘pomelo’. And although the original name of ‘grapefruit’ was rapidly re-adopted, the damage had already been done. The spelling of the name ‘pomelo’ (often re-misspelled as ‘pomello’!) had become part of the common language. But it was now used to refer to the one that wasn’t the grapefruit – the pummelo.

      Apart from the fact that the pummelo is the biggest of the citrus fruits, it possesses one other unique attribute. The rule with citrus fruits is that high growing temperatures produce bigger fruit, but proportionately reduce the flavour. But with the pummelo, the opposite is true, and the higher the temperature, the sweeter it gets. (Actually, its son, the grapefruit, shares the same characteristic. But as the flavour in this case is measured in terms of increasing sourness, it disqualifies itself as a contender.)

       It’s not really surprising that the best way to eat a pummelo is to regard it as a great big orange – just peel away the skin (you’ll definitely need a knife for this job), cut off a segment and get stuck in. The noticeable difference is the size of the ‘sacs’ – the little pods that contain the juice. They’re about one centimetre long – much bigger and fatter than you’ll find in oranges. But another surprise is how long the fruit keeps. The thick skin forms a protective layer, and begins to wrinkle and shrink after about a month. In a cool, dark place, they’ll last for more than three months. And by this time the fruit has become much sweeter – it’s actually juicier and more appealing than the fresh fruit!

         Many tropical fruits have been found to possess curative or restorative properties – particularly extracts made from the sap, roots or bark. Except, that is, for the citrus family, whose main alternative use is that the essential oils they contain…err…smell nice. But with the pummelo, the juice from the roots contains an enzyme that has a strong sedative effect. And, in Brazil, the gum formed from the sap is refined, and marketed commercially as an effective de-congestant.

         There are a huge number of exotic fruits to choose from in Thailand. When you’re browsing through the fruit markets, often the temptation is to try something flamboyant. And sometimes it’ll turn out to be sticky and sweet. But if it’s a refreshing, clean taste that you want, the pummelo is just the job – particularly after a meal or for breakfast. Apart from which, you really are supporting local commerce – this one’s truly ‘Made in Thailand’, and here it’s known as a ‘somm-o’.


Rob De Wet


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