Vietnams flowers and fruit

If you’re reading this in the beginning of the month, then Tet is once again in full bloom. And two things that will be out in abundance are fruits and flowers. Vietnamese love them both. Luscious, fresh tropical fruits are on the table every day. And in most neighbourhoods it seems that every block accommodates a busy florist. Fruits and flowers are especially popular at festive times. The fruits, of course, are for eating. But often so are the flowers. Flowers for the heart? Sure. Flowers for your love? No doubt. How about flowers for your table? Your plate, to be exact. Yes, flowers to eat. Both for your gustatory delight, and for your health. Traditional Vietnamese medicine regards certain flowers as part of its pharmacopoeia. Traditional Vietnamese cooks regard them as tasty.

Flowers of the pomelo tree, whose sweet smell perfumes the nights of late spring, can be distilled into an essence that gives an extra dimension to many desserts. The frangipani that grows on temple grounds are used for their anti-hypertension properties and taken as a kind of tea.

Lotus stamens are thought to have medicinal properties good for the treatment of uterine bleeding and ‘loss of libido’. Lotus seeds, which are flowers to be, may be candied, or cooked in syrup, or used as stuffing for chicken, or eaten like peanuts. They are said to have a sedative effect.

Jasmine, the traditional symbol of loose morals, has long been popular in tea and candy. White roses steamed with sugar make cough syrup that children are not reluctant to take. Banana flowers are sliced into thin strips and made into a tasty salad. Flowers of luffa (muop) and pumpkin (bi ngo) are often eaten fried in peasant homes. A soup cooked with flowers of the strong-smelling swallow-wort (hoa thien ly) is popular among rice farmers and is thought to be a good treatment for gout. (Frankly, I’d prescribe whisky, but that’s for another edition).

And then we come to fruit. And one fruit in particular is worthy of mention: durian, the king, or jester, of tropical fruits, praised and damned in equal measure. You either love it or hate it. Its Vietnamese name, sau rieng, means ‘one’s sorrows’. You may well regret hacking into the armour-like skin of a durian, as the powerful aroma will linger long in your memory. But if you hold your breath you might (I say you might) enjoy the creamy dense flesh and its complex flavour, reminiscent, to speak kindly, of avocado, peanut butter, ripe cheese, and honey.

Now that, of course, is to speak kindly of the ‘King of Fruits’. Durian is melon-like with a yellow, pudding-textured flesh and an odor best described as pig shit, turpentine and onions whirled in a blender and garnished with a dirty gym sock. And I have long said so, in speech and in print. And I mean that quite literally. This isn’t just hyperbole. That’s what it smells like to me! And it can be smelled from many yards away. In fact, it is forbidden by law to carry it on the subway in Singapore, or on any international flight on any airline.

No one can doubt my sincerity in describing the durian. Especially if you consult the internet. An internet guru recently contacted me with some surprising news. If you Google “durian” you will come up with about 5 million pages. According to the guru, 2.6 million of them include my above quote. I am, according to Google, the most quoted man in the world on the subject of durian. Anthony Bourdain (AKA the Anti Christ) gets about 45,000. Andrew Zimmern gets a lousy 15,000. So my words must ring true somewhere! Happy Tet!

Read more Sterling’s Saigon