Story by Jim Algie
Growing up in Canada, fruit played a very peripheral part in our diets and lives. Sure, there were oranges from Florida, apples from Washington, California grapes, and tangerines from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley; but for the most part, desserts were limited to canned and very syrupy slices of peaches and pineapples, and… even the very name makes me want to wretch… rhubarb. As far as fruit went, the highlight of the year – by far – was the Mandarin oranges from China. If we we’d been good children, Santa Claus would stuff them in our Christmas stockings hanging over the fireplace. But if we were bad, we’d get stalks of rhubarb sour enough to make you squint.
The idea that fruit could spawn festivals and folk legends, as well as being one of a country’s economic perennials never occurred to me in those days. But then I came to Thailand and was stunned, not only by the abundance of fruit stands on city streets, and beside the highways (not to mention the roving carts serving fruit slices on ice), but how each season had its own particular harvest and natural delicacies.
Take May, for example, when the so-called “mango rains” begin. My appetite has now been hard-wired, in almost Pavlovian fashion, to look forward to a bumper crop of rambutans, mangosteens, and durians, even though I had never seen, or even heard of any of these fruits before I ventured to the Far East.
Peeling (perhaps skinning is the more apt verb) the reddish, spiky rambutans, or the purple mangosteens, to reveal the white meat – occasionally tainted with brown bruises – became a new trick to be mastered and created the same feeling of accomplishment. Likewise, the flood of sweetness that gushed out of the succulent meat also provided a child-like, sugar fix. With these two fruits, it was pretty much love at first bite.
Durians played hard to get, though, even if I was smitten by their folklore. No doubt you’ve heard that you’re not allowed to use this septic-tank-smelling fruit as a weapon. (Actually, it does look like something a medieval knight would’ve attached to a chain and swung at an enemy’s head.). I’ve also heard a couple of Thais claim that eating it while drinking alcohol will kill you. Though it might be the king of fruits to many Thais, for a whopping number of foreigners it’s the stinking leper at the bottom of the fruit chain.
Slowly but stealthily it curried favour with my taste buds, however, and while I’d never call it my biggest love of the orchard, it’s definitely become a cherished mistress. (The best-selling novel Like Water for Chocolate, and the superb film it bred, spelled out the lascivious nature of eating with enormous vitality.)
Everyone says that if you want to learn a foreign tongue you should get a girlfriend or boyfriend from that particular country. Which is true enough. But you really need a Thai significant other to be your personal fruit advisor in this country. In my case, Tukata’s abundance of knowledge about rural Thailand has been the source material for much amazement, and many stories. For example, I had no idea of the medicinal properties of mangosteen, which is why it’s often used as a gift for those who’ve been hospitalised. Nor did I have a clue about how Thai women use the purple rinds to make a range of natural cosmetics, soap and shampoo.
In her opinion, the most important, and versatile, fruit in Thailand, however, is the humble banana. Not only does it serve as one of the first foods Thai children consume (when it’s mashed up with rice), after they’re weaned off mother’s milk, it also follows them right into their coffins – banana leaves are put under the corpse to absorb the smell of putrefaction. Even today, children – at least those in rural areas – still play with hobby horses and toys guns made from the wood of the banana tree; one of the more benevolent and powerful female spirits, Tanee, is supposed to haunt them; and the flower makes a side veggie in dishes like pad thai.
Bananas also play a part in traditional Thai wedding rites. When the groom’s family comes to the bride’s house for the ceremony with the chanting monks, the brothers and sisters who are single carry two small banana trees and sugarcane plants. Once the ceremony is completed, the bride and groom each plant one of the fruit trees. The banana tree needs a lot of water, while sugar cane thrives in a dry climate. This marriage of opposites symbolizes the two poles of life: the yin and the yang, the male and the female. Depending on whose trees grow fruitful and multiply it’s believed that you can gauge who will be the most dominant and fruitful partner in the marriage.
The Thai respect for fruit as a staple of life and fertility, as a work of art and a symbol of prosperity, takes center-stage at this month’s fruit festivals in Trat from May 2-6, Rayong from May 4-12, and Chantaburi from May 24-June 1. Of course, all the farmers are eager to celebrate the end of the harvest season, when they can finally reap some profits from their toil. And of course there are the competitions for the biggest and tastiest fruits. As Tukata explained, many districts from all over these provinces come to compete. If they happen to win, it will put their village on the map, and locals from kilometres around will come there to buy fruit direct from the farmers.
Commerce aside, young women competing for the highly coveted title of Miss Mangosteen, or Miss Rambutan, take part in beauty pageants, which see them paraded through the streets atop floats bedecked with flowers and fruit carved into a variety of mostly floral shapes. Along with the demonstrations of how to make local desserts, and general jubilation, these festivals also contain a cornucopia of cultural events, and leave you with the impression that they are really a Thai form of Thanksgiving.