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Adventures and Tales of Jessie T. Ponce


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Tropical Fruit Facts and Legends: Durian – Asia’s Notorious King of Fruits

A Legendary Fruit

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

A pile of ripe durian fruits

Perhaps the most notorious of Asian tropical fruits; the durian (pronounced /ˈdjʊriən/) attracts both extreme adoration and intense disgust from fruit eaters.  The only ‘fault’ of this controversial fruit,  widely known and revered in Southeast Asia as the “king of fruits”; is probably its blatant violation of the common expectation that ‘great food always smells great’.

A legend in Thailand tells of how the durian was the most beautiful, fragrant, and delicious of all fruits when a wise hermit presented its seed to the king.  The king accepted the fruit but did not properly thank the hermit so, in anger, the hermit cursed the durian tree, and thence the fruit grew ugly thorns and began to emit a foul stench alth0ugh its heavenly taste and magical powers remained.  Other folktales in Southeast Asia such as the legend of Orang Mawas, the Malaysian version of Bigfoot, and Orang Pendek, its Sumatran version, claim that these fantastic creatures regularly  feast on durian.

Heavenly Taste

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Cross-section of a durian fruit

The taste of durian (Durio zibethinus) is often described in superlatives.  This is true even among the early Western explorers who have tried this fruit upon visiting the Far East.  Indeed, one traveller from 1599 writes: “it is of such an excellent taste that it surpasses in flavour all other fruits of the world”. Probably the most-quoted description of the flavour of the durian is the one written by the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in 1856:  “The five cells are silky-white within, and are filled with a mass of firm, cream-coloured pulp, containing about three seeds each. This pulp is the edible part, and its consistence and flavour are indescribable. A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat Durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience. … as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed.”

Hellish Odor

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The technique in opening a durian fruit

On the other hand, the odour of durian is often described with revulsion and has led to the fruit’s banishment from certain hotels and public transportation in Southeast Asia.  Wallace was probably being diplomatic when he said that “the smell of the ripe fruit is certainly at first disagreeable” but other westerners more graphically described the smell as: “like eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory”; “completely rotten, mushy onions”; “as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother” and   “best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock”.   Perhaps the phrase that summarises all these descriptions of the ‘king of the fruits’ is the one being used in the island of Mindanao in the Philippines: that the durian “tastes like heaven but smells like hell”.

A Large, Spiky Fruit

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

A durian fruit is large and quite heavy

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

The durian’s spikes are sharp and sturdy

The other characteristic that contributes to its notoriety, aside from its heavenly taste and hellish odour, is the combination of its large size and formidable thorn-covered husk. The fruit can grow as large as 12 inches long and 8 inches in diameter and can weigh up to 5 kilograms. Its round or oblong shell, usually green to brown in colour, is covered with sharp, sturdy spikes that further makes handling difficult. A faint line that marks the cell divisions converges at the bottom of the fruit.  Small cracks show at the convergence point when the fruit is ripe.  A knife is usually wedged between these cracks to break it open but, to the untrained, this can be a big challenge as the fruit’s spikes and its size prevent it from being held comfortably with bare hands.

Tall Tree

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A young, grafted durian tree planted by a pond

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Durian flower buds

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Unripe durian fruit hanging from the tree

Furthermore, a durian fruit falling on a person’s head can cause serious injuries because it is heavy, armed with sharp thorns, and can fall from a significant height. The native durian tree can grow up to more than 60 feet high and usually takes 8 to 10 years to bear fruit but, in the last 10 to 15 years, modern technology has greatly improved the cultivation process and the quality of fruits.  Present grafted varieties bear bigger and better fruits within five years and, in a young tree, the fruits are usually within arm’s reach.  In old farming methods, durian farmers just wait for the ripe fruit to fall off from the tree and it is widely believed that the fruit falls only at night when there is less chance of it falling on somebody.  Thus, in those days, it was not advisable to loiter under durian trees especially at night as the fruit may fall on you and cause serious injuries but, at present, the danger of doing so also includes the possibility of actually bumping into the spiny fruit in the dark.  The old farming method was probably the context of an Indonesian saying, ketiban durian runtuh, which translates to “getting a fallen durian” or receiving an unexpected luck or fortune. A durian that falls off the tree continues to ripen for two to four days, but after five or six days most would consider it overripe and unpalatable.

An Aphrodisiac

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Durian fruits on display in Davao City

It is also widely believed that the durian has aphrodisiac qualities.  A saying in Indonesiandurian jatuh sarung naik, meaning “the durians fall and the sarongs come up”, refers to this belief.  Southeast Asian folk beliefs, as well as traditional Chinese medicine, consider the durian fruit to have warming properties liable to cause excessive sweating.  The traditional method to counteract this is to pour water into the empty shell of the fruit after the pulp has been consumed and drink it. An alternative method is to eat the durian in accompaniment with mangosteen, which is considered to have cooling properties. Pregnant women or people with high blood pressure are traditionally advised not to consume durian. Coffee, brandy or other alcoholic beverages are also considered a big NO after eating durian.  Aside from causing indigestion and bad breath, taking alcohol with durian is believed to stimulate high blood pressure. Several medical investigations on the validity of these beliefs have been conducted with varying conclusions, although a study by the University of Tsukuba finds that the fruit’s high sulphur content causes the body to inhibit the activity of aldehyde dehydrogenase, causing a 70% reduction of the ability to clear toxins from the body.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

A fruit vendor offering a large variety durian in South Cotabato, Philippines

The edible portion of the fruit, known as the aril and usually referred to as the “flesh” or “pulp”, only accounts for about 15-30% of the mass of the entire fruit.  According to references, the durian fruit also contains a high amount of sugarvitamin Cpotassium, and the serotonergic amino acid tryptophan, and is a good source of carbohydratesproteins, and fats. It is recommended as a good source of raw fats by several raw food advocates, while others classify it as a high-glycemic food, recommending to minimise its consumption.

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Flavoring Many Asian Dishes

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Bags of durian candies on display in Davao City

Southeast Asians use durian fruit to flavour a wide variety of sweet edibles such as traditional Malay candy, ice kacangdodol, rose biscuits, and, with a touch of modern innovation, ice creammilkshakesmooncakesYule logs and cappuccino  Pulut Durian is glutinous rice steamed with coconut milk and served with ripened durian. In Sabah, red durian is fried with onions and chilli and served as a side dish.   Ikan brengkes is fish cooked in a durian-based sauce, traditional in Sumatra.  Tempoyak refers to fermented durian, usually made from lower quality durian that is unsuitable for direct consumption.  Tempoyak can be eaten either cooked or uncooked, is normally eaten with rice, and can also be used for making curry.  Sambal Tempoyak is a Sumatran dish made from the fermented durian fruit, coconut milk, and a collection of spicy ingredients known as sambal.  Unripe durians may be cooked as a vegetable, except in the Philippines, where all uses are sweet rather than savoury. Malaysians make both sugared and salted preserves from durian. When durian is minced with salt, onions and vinegar, it is called boder.

Other Uses

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

A basket full of durian

Other parts of the durian fruit are likewise useful. The durian seeds can be eaten whether they are boiled, roasted or fried in coconut oil, with a texture that is similar to taro or yam, but stickier.  In Java, the seeds are sliced thin and cooked with sugar as a confection. Young leaves and shoots of the durian are occasionally cooked as greens. Sometimes the ash of the burned rind is added to special cakes.  The petals of durian flowers are eaten in the North Sumatra province of Indonesia, while in the Moluccas islands the husk of the durian fruit is used as fuel to smoke fish. The nectar and pollen of the durian flower that honeybees collect is an important honey source, but the characteristics of the honey are unknown.

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Durian Producers and Name-Bearers

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Durian City: a durian sculpture welcomes visitors at the Davao City International Airport

The durian is native to BruneiIndonesia and Malaysia but there is still some debate as to whether the durian is native or was introduced to the Philippines, particularly in Davao region in the island of Mindanao.  Interestingly, although the durian is not native to Thailand, the country is currently a major exporter of durian, followed only by Malaysia and Indonesia.   In these countries, annual festivals are being held with the durian as the main feature.  The World Durian Festival is held in Chantaburi in Thailand in early May each year; Penang’s Durian and Fruits Festival is held in June; Davao City’s Kadayawan Festival which strongly features the durian is celebrated in August; while the  Durian Festival in Tagum City (also in Davao Region) is held in September.  Other places where durian farms are located include CambodiaLaosVietnamMyanmarIndiaSri Lanka, the West IndiesFloridaHawaiiPapua New Guinea, the Polynesian IslandsMadagascar, southern China (Hainan Island), northern Australia, and Singapore.  “The Big Durian” is the nickname of Jakarta, Indonesia; Davao City in the Philippines is often referred to as “Durian City; and  the oddly shaped Esplanade building in Singapore is often called “The Durian” by locals.   

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Tropical Fruits Facts and Legends: Coconut – The Tree of Life

A Tropical Landmark

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

A mature coconut tree

A movie scene, still photo, or sketch about a tropical place is not complete without a coconut palm  (Cocos nucifera) dominating the view.  To an outside viewer, the coconut palm is at best just an apt symbol of the tropics but, to the natives of these places, it represents no less than their life. In Sanskrit the coconut is called kalpa vriksha: “the tree which provides all the necessities of life”. In the Malay language, it is pokok seribu guna: “the tree of a thousand uses”.  A proverb in the Pacific Islands says that “He who plants a coconut tree plants food and drink, vessels and clothing, a habitation for himself and a heritage for his children.”  In the Philippines, the coconut is commonly called the “Tree of Life“.

A Very Special Drink

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Cross-section of a young coconut

A coconut legend in Guam tells of a young girl who was deeply loved by the whole tribe.   The girl became very ill and asked for a special drink that could heal her.  Despite the efforts of the tribesmen to search for and give her the first drink; she eventually passed away and was buried on a beautiful spot on top of a hill.  The tribesmen noticed a strange plant grow from the girl’s burial ground and they cared for the plant until it grew into a very tall tree.  One day, a strange round fruit fell from the tree which they immediately gave to the girl’s mother.  The mother asked that the fruit be cracked open then she drank the water collected from the fruit.  It was so sweet and refreshing and she knew that this was the special drink that her daughter was looking for.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

A pile of young coconuts

The young green coconut (fruit or seed of the coco palm) or tender coconut is unique as natural refreshment because it offers both food and drink as the Pacific saying pointed out. In many cities in Southeast Asia tender coconuts are sold on the streets, strategic highway stops, and on beaches just like any other fruit.   Coconuts are cut in front of customers to ensure its freshness.  A portion of the outer husk and shell is cut to expose the fruit’s content. The young coconut meat  serves as the food and the coconut water serves as the drink. Coconut water is consumed first by using a straw or by pouring the contents into a glass. The water is mildly sweet with a dash of pungent, aerated feel when cut fresh. Depending on its size a tender contains 300 to 1,000 ml of coconut water.  Once the water is consumed, the coconut meat – the white, fleshy, gelatinous part of the coconut – is scraped from the shell then consumed directly or with a mix of sugar or condensed milk.

The Buko Halo-Halo

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Buko Halo-halo and shaved ice ready for serving

In some parts of the Philippines, for example along the highway of South Cotabato in southern Philippines, the tender coconut is  emptied of its water (to be used as a drink later) then filled with halo-halo, a popular Filipino snack/dessert.  Most of the ingredients (fruits, beans, and other sweets) are first placed inside the tender coconut, followed by the shaved ice. This is then sprinkled with sugar, and topped with either (or a combination of) leche flanube halaya, or ice cream.  Evaporated milk is poured into the mixture upon serving.  While mixing the halo-halo, the coconut meat is scraped and gets combined with its various ingredients.  On the other hand, when prepared for several guests, the coconut meat is arranged like a fruit salad (called buko salad in Filipino).  The meat is grated in thin strips then typically combined with the contents of canned a fruit cocktail, sugar palm fruit (kaong), and condensed milk and/or cream then served as a cold snack or desert.

High Nutrient Content

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Fruit-bearing young coconut trees in the Philippines

About 90% of the fat found in coconut meat is saturated, a proportion exceeding that of foods such as lard, butter, and tallow.  Like most nut meats, coconut meat contains less sugar and more protein than popular fruits such as bananas, apples and oranges. It is relatively high in minerals such as ironphosphorus and zinc.  Coconut water contains sugar, fiber, proteins, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, and provides an isotonic electrolyte balance that can also be considered free of fat and cholesterol.  It has high potassium content and contains antioxidants linked to a variety of health benefits.  Cytokinins in coconut water may be among its most beneficial components.  It is also gaining popularity as isotonic sports drink.  There have been cases where coconut water has been used as an intravenous hydration fluid in some developing countries where medical saline was unavailable.  Coconut water can be fermented to make a different gelatinous product nata de coco also called coconut gel which likewise often finds its way to the halo-halo.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

A Buko Halo-Halo snack house along the highway in South Cotabato

Aside from being consumed fresh, the coconut fruit has various other uses.  Coconut water can be processed to create alcohol. Coconut milk (to be distinguished from coconut water) which is extracted from mature coconut meat is part of the daily diet of many people being a dominant ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisines from meat dishes such as the widely popular curry to other fish and vegetable dishes and pastries and desserts like macaroons. Coconut milk can likewise be domestically processed into oil  which is commonly used for frying, cooking, making margarine and fuel in rural areas.  In the Philippines, coconut milk, known as gata, and grated coconut flakes are used in the preparation of dishes like laingginataanbibingkaube halayapitsi-pitsipalitawbuko pie and more. Coconut jam is made by mixing muscovado sugar with coconut milk. A rare occurrence among coconuts is the sport fruit  or macapuno where instead of separate meat and water, the contents of the coconut shell is a gelatinous, somewhat sticky white material which can be sweetened into a macapuno jam. Coconut flour has also been developed for use in baking and to combat malnutrition.  Coconut chips have been sold in tourist regions like Hawaii and the Caribbean. Coconut butter is often used to describe solidified coconut oil, but has also been adopted as a name by certain specialty products made out of coconut milk solids or puréed coconut meat and oil.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Mature Coconuts

Coconuts may help prevent  benign prostatic hyperplasia.  The Virgin Coconut Oil (oil extracted from fresh coconut) has recently been gaining popularity as a health product and has various applications in food, medicine, and industry.  According to studies with rats, virgin coconut oil reduced total cholesterol, triglycerides, phospholipids, LDL, and VLDL cholesterol levels and increased HDL cholesterol in serum and tissues. The hexane fraction of coconut peel may contain novel anticancer compounds and young coconut juice has estrogen-like characteristics.

The Coconut Toddy

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Coconut Flowers

Coconut flowers bloom in clusters which eventually mature into bunches of between five to thirty fruits depending on coconut variety.  In lieu of the fruit, the sap called toddy that can be collected from incising the flower clusters is equally valuable to locals especially among the Pacific islanders. A young well-maintained tree can produce around 300 litres of toddy per year while a forty year old tree may yield around 400 litres. The toddy is drunk as neera also known as tuba (Philippines), tuak (Indonesia and Malaysia) or karewe in Kiribati. When left to ferment on its own, the toddy becomes palm wine which can be distilled to produce arrack. In the Philippines this alcoholic drink is called lambanog or “coconut vodka”. The palm wine can be also fermented to produce coconut vinegar. Furthermore, the toddy can be reduced by boiling to create a sweet syrup or candy such as te kamamai in Kiribati or dhiyaa hakuru and Addu bondi in Maldives. It can be reduced further to yield coconut sugar also referred to as palm sugar or jaggery.

The core at the tip of the coconut trunk where the palm stalks grow, the basically very young stalks (Apical buds ) are made of crunchy white material known as “palm cabbage” or heart of palm. They are edible and considered a rare delicacy as harvesting the buds kills the palms. Hearts of palm are eaten in salads, sometimes called “millionaire’s salad”, fresh spring rolls, or simply treated as another vegetable suitable for cooking with meat dishes.

The Copra

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A coconut farm in the Philippines

The most common agricultural product from coconut is called copra or dried meat from mature coconut which is processed to industrial grade coconut oil.  When the coconut has fully matured and the outer husk has turned brown, it normally falls off from the tree but coconut plantations usually hire harvesters to pick mature coconuts. A full-sized coconut weighs about 1.44 kilograms and it takes around 6000 full-grown coconuts to produce a tonne of copra.  In some parts of the world, trained pig-tailed macaques (Old World monkey) are used to harvest coconuts. Training schools for pig-tailed macaques still exist both in southern Thailand, and in the Malaysian state of Kelantan.  Competitions are held each year to find the fastest harvester.  The Philippines was the biggest producer of coconuts in 2009 followed by Indonesia and India.

Tree of a Hundred Uses

Jessie T. Ponce PhotographyAs if these are not enough uses from a single coconut palm; the rest of tree also have their uses in everyday life in the tropics. The coir (the fiber from the husk of the coconut) is used in ropes, mats, brushes, sacks, caulking for boats, stuffing fiber for mattresses, and as potting compost especially in orchid mix. The husk and shells can be used for fuel and are a source of charcoal.  A dried halved coconut shell with husk can be used to buff floors, known as a bunot in the Philippines and simply a “coconut brush” in JamaicaTempurung as the shell is called in the Malay language can be used as a soup bowl and—if fixed with a handle—a ladle. Coconut shells are also manufactured into various handicrafts, including coconut shell buttons such as those usually found in the Hawaiian Aloha shirts. Certain musical instruments, including the Chinese yehu and banhu, along with the Vietnamese đàn gáo and Arabo-Turkic rebab; have bodies made out of coconut shell. In the Philippines, dried half shells are also used as a music instrument in a folk dance called maglalatik.  Foley sound effects  imitating the sound of a horse’s hoof-beats often use coconut shells to gain the desired effect.   A coconut shell used to grace the desk of U.S. president John F. Kennedy . On it was inscribed an important message sent out from  Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109 which he commanded when it got shipwrecked  in the Solomon  Islands  in  World War II.

790px-Coconut_Palace_Court WL

Manila’s Coconut Palace and Office of the Vice President of the Philippines

The stiff mid-ribs of coconut leaves are used for making brooms in India, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. The leaves also provide material for baskets and for roofing thatch; they can be woven into mats, cooking skewers, and kindling arrows as well.  In India, particularly in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the woven coconut leaves are used as ‘pandals‘ (temporary sheds) for the marriage functions. Dried coconut leaves can be burned to ash, which can be harvested for lime.

Coconut trunks are preferred for building small bridges because of their straightness, strength and salt resistance. Hawaiians hollowed the trunk to form drums, containers, or small canoes.  Coconut timber  derived from the trunk is increasingly being used as an ecologically sound substitute for endangered hardwoods and has applications in furniture and specialized construction, as notably demonstrated in Manila’s Coconut Palace.

Coconut and Religion

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn Hindu tradition, a coconut (Sanskritnarikela) is an essential element of the rituals . The Hindu goddess of well-being and wealth, Lakshmi, is often shown holding a coconut. Coconut flowers are auspicious symbols and are fixtures at Hindu and Buddhist weddings and other important occasions.  In Kerala, coconut flowers must be present during a marriage ceremony.  Similarly in Sri Lanka coconut flowers, standing in brass urns, are placed in prominent positions during wedding ceremonies.  In tantric practices, coconuts are sometimes used as substitutes for human skulls.

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Author’s Note: I started my main blog “A Traveller’s Tale” with a series of articles about tropical fruits and the coconut was among the fruits I featured.  However, the site eventually evolved into a photo-heavy blog and my text-heavy articles have gone out-of-place.  And so I decided to create two separate sites, one for photography and one for whatever articles I have written.  I’ll be re-posting the articles about tropical fruits on this site in the coming weeks with an intention to make this site their permanent home eventually.  Thanks for viewing this post. – Jessie