Archive for the 'Vegetation Profile' Category

Vegetation Profile: Bitter Melon


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.


Vegetation Profile: Elephant Ear


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.

Vegetation Profile: Sugar Apple


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.

Vegetation Profile: Papaya

The papaya (from Carib via Spanish), is the fruit of the tree Carica papaya, in the genus Carica. It is native to the tropics of the Americas, and was cultivated in Mexico several centuries before the emergence of the Mesoamerican classic cultures. Nowadays, the papaya is also known as fruta bomba (Cuba), lechosa (Venezuela, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and the Dominican Republic), mamão, papaw (Sri Lankan English), Papol \ Guslabu (Tree melon – in Sinhalese ), pawpaw or tree melon, as well as tree melon (木瓜) in Chinese and đu đủ in Vietnamese.

The fruit is ripe when it feels soft and its skin has attained an amber to orange hue. The fruit’s taste is vaguely similar to pineapple and peach, although much milder without the tartness, creamier, and more fragrant, with a texture of slightly over-ripened cantaloupe.

There is nothing tastier than chilled, fresh papaya or đu đủ on a hot Saigon afternoon. Fruit vendors scattered around town sell it by the slice for 2,000 VND, while the whole fruit goes for about 6,000 VND per kilogram.

Sure, I’ve had fresh papaya in the states and canned ones in “tropical” fruit cocktail mixes, but the stuff I get in town tastes a million times better. I think it has something to do with the fact that the fruit is grown locally—fewer food miles makes for a finer product.

Although papayas are generally considered a sweet fruit, they really are quite versatile. One of my favorite savory preparations is goi đu đủ kho bo (green papaya salad with beef jerky).

There are a lot of things to love about living in Vietnam, but the availability of fresh, locally grown fruits ranks especially high on my list. Eating 5-a day is easy as pie.

Vegetation Profile: Ambarella


Ambarella are deciduous or semi-evergreen trees growing to 25 m tall. The leaves are spirally arranged, pinnate, rarely bipinnate or simple. The fruit is a drupe similar to a small mango (in the related genus Mangifera), 4-10 cm long, ripening yellow or orange. About 10 species of Spondias bear edible fruits and have been domesticated for fruit production. The fruit has a single seed.

I buy ambarellas or trái cóc daily from the fruit vendor outside my office—they usually go for about 1,500 VND. The Vietnamese seem to prefer their trái cóc unripe, on a stick, and dipped in a chili and salt mixture. The appearance, taste, and texture of green trái cóc are reminiscent of green mangoes and much too sour for my taste. I prefer my trái cóc juicy and ripe. Stick optional.

Vegetation Profile: Rambutan


The rambutan is a round to oval drupe 3-6 cm (rarely to 8 cm) long and 3-4 cm broad, borne in a loose pendant cluster of 10-20 together. The leathery skin is reddish (rarely orange or yellow), and covered with fleshy pliable spines, hence the name rambutan, derived from the Malay word rambut which means hairs. The fruit flesh is translucent, whitish or very pale pink, with a sweet, mildly acidic flavor. The single seed is glossy brown, 2-3 cm long, with a white basal scar.

I have somewhat of a love/hate relationship with chom chom—I love them because they’re plump, sweet, and juicy, but I hate them because they’re dirty and make my nails icky. While I generally prefer fresh fruits to canned ones, in the case of chom chom, canned may be superior. I hate debris under my fingernails.

Vegetation Profile: Langsat


Langsat are ovoid, roundish orbs around five centimeters in diameter, usually found in clusters of two to thirty fruits. Each round fruit is covered by yellowish, thick, leathery skin. Underneath the skin, the fruit is divided into five or six slices of translucent, juicy flesh. The flesh is slightly acidic in taste, although ripe specimens are sweeter. Green, seeds are present in around half of the segments, usually taking up a small portion of the segment although some seeds take up the entire segment’s volume. In contrast with the sweet-sour flavor of the fruit’s flesh, the seeds are extremely bitter.

I recently discovered Langsat or trai bon bon at Cho Han (Han Market) in Da Nang. The vendor who I was buying guavas from insisted I try a langsat and began peeling one before I could say no thanks. I popped the fleshy fruit in my mouth and fell head over heels instantly. The langsat was ripe and simultaneously sweet and tart—sort of like a perfectly sweetened grapefruit. I bought a kilo for 25,000 VND and polished them off much too soon.