Published December 6, 2007
Phu Quoc , Vegetation Profile
The Pomegranate (Punica granatum) is a fruit-bearing deciduous shrub or small tree growing to 5–8 m tall. The pomegranate is native to the region from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran to the Himalayas in northern India and has been cultivated and naturalized over the whole Mediterranean region and the Caucasus since ancient times. It is widely cultivated throughout Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, India, the drier parts of southeast Asia, Malaya, the East Indies, and tropical Africa. Introduced into Latin America and California by Spanish settlers in 1769, pomegranate is now cultivated mainly in the drier parts of California and Arizona for its fruits exploited commercially as juice products gaining in popularity since 2001.
While The Astronomer was eating grilled meatball sandwiches at the market in Phu Quoc, I picked up a pomegranate from a produce stand to enjoy later on the beach.
What’s most notable about the pomegranates in Phu Quoc are the color of the seeds. Unlike the deep red seeds found in pomegranates stateside, the ones in Phu Quoc are pale, pink and sometimes even clear. Another major difference is the taste. The pomegranates I’ve had in the past were pleasant, but very tart, while these were incredibly sweet and juicy (i.e. no sour face).
Phu Quoc pomegranates > American pomegranates
The winter melon (Chinese: 冬瓜; pinyin: dōngguā, Japanese 冬瓜（とうがん）tougan, also called white gourd or ash gourd, is a vine grown for its very large fruit, eaten as a vegetable. The fruit is fuzzy when young. By maturity, the fruit loses its hairs and develops a waxy coating, giving rise to the name wax gourd, and providing a long shelf life. The melon may grow as large as 1-2 meters in length. The word “melon” in the name is somewhat misleading, as the fruit is not sweet.
Originally cultivated in Southeast Asia, the winter melon is now widely grown in East Asia and South Asia as well. The shoots, tendrils, and leaves of the plant may also be eaten as greens.
I saw these lovely winter melons or bí đao at the market in Vinh Long during my trip to the Mekong Delta a month or so ago. My favorite bí đao preparation is canh bí, which consists of minced shrimp and pork in a sweet broth that is eaten with steamed rice. The soup’s color is a translucent, but brilliant orange that is a result of bloody shrimp heads.
Momordica charantia is a tropical and subtropical vine of the family Cucurbitaceae, widely grown for edible fruit, which is among the most bitter of all vegetables. English names for the plant and its fruit include bitter melon or bitter gourd (translated from Chinese: 苦瓜; pinyin: kǔguā), in Jamaica it is generally known as cerasse. The original home of the species is not known, other than that it is a native of the tropics. It is widely grown in South and Southeast Asia, China, Africa, and the Caribbean.
The fruit has a distinct warty looking exterior and an oblong shape. It is hollow in cross-section, with a relatively thin layer of flesh surrounding a central seed cavity filled with large flat seeds and pith. Bitter melon comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. The typical Chinese phenotype is 20 to 30 cm long, oblong with bluntly tapering ends and pale green in color, with a gently undulating, warty surface.
Bitter melon or khổ qua is a staple in down home Vietnamese cooking. I have encountered it stuffed with ground meat at com binh dan establishments and simmered in a soup at my grandma’s sister’s house. I’ve even seen it stuffed with meat and simmering in a soup simultaneously. Regardless of the style of preparation, bitter melon seems to be an acquired taste that just doesn’t vibe well with me. The melon’s texture is pleasant, but its flavor is way too harsh.
Bac ha is the Vietnamese name for an Asian vegetable which is known by a variety of names in English including taro stem and elephant ear. The scientific name for the plant is Alocasia odora. The plant is native to Southeast Asia, and is available from Asian markets and specialty stores. It is also possible to grow bac ha at home, since it is often used as an ornamental plant in temperate and tropical gardens.
The plant is in the same family as taro, which leads some consumers to confuse the two. The use of “taro stems” to describe bac ha increases the confusion. However, the edible part of bac ha is the stems, not the corms, as is the case with taro. Although bac ha corms can be eaten, the primary reason for cultivating the plant is the fleshy long stalks, not the corms. Just like with taro, however, bac ha must be carefully cooked before consumption, or the plant can stimulate an allergic reaction.
I can’t believe this is the first vegetable I’ve profiled. What can I say? Fruits are my fave.
I found these beautiful stalks of bac ha at an outdoor market in the city of Vinh Long in the Mekong Delta this past weekend. I was taken aback by how long they were; the tropical climate in Vietnam sure is amazing for growing hefty produce.
I only know of one dish that features bac ha and it’s a delightful soup called canh chua. I’ve mentioned my love for this soup many times on gas•tron•o•my. When cooked, the texture of bac ha becomes very sponge-like and tastily soaks up the soup’s sour notes. Although I’ve never tasted raw bac ha, I imagine it to be a bit like celery—crunchy, loaded with water and a bit tasteless.
In some regions of the world, the sugar-apple is also known as custard-apple, a different plant in the same genus.
Annona squamosa (Sugar-apple, Sweetsop or Custard Apple) is a species of Annona native to the tropical Americas. Its exact native range is unknown due to extensive cultivation, but thought to be in the Caribbean.
The fruit is usually round or oval, slightly pine cone-like, 6-10 cm diameter and weighing 100-230 g, with a scaly or lumpy skin. The fruit flesh is edible, white to light yellow, and resembles and tastes like custard. The seeds are scattered through the fruit flesh; they are blackish-brown, 12-18 mm long, and hard and shiny.
Sugar apples or mãng cầu are my current fruit obsession. I tried them for the first time two weeks ago when my great uncle Ti presented me with six as a gift. Sugar apples look reptilian on the outside, but there is nothing cold-blooded about this sweet and juicy specimen. Although commonly described as custard-like, I find the fruit’s texture more similar to a full-bodied ripened pear.
The copious amount of seeds are a bit of a pain, but the fleshy goodness makes it worth it. I find that sugar apples taste best cold and extra-ripe. A kilogram of sugar apples in District 4 goes for 18,000 VND.