Friday, May 23, 2008

Taste, memory. ¡Ay carambola!. (on exotic fruits).

I saw a photograph of a New Zealand red tamarillo the other day, and it brought back sudden memories of the trip I took to Taiwan last year. We had seen them at a fruit stand and bought some because they were so beautiful. The fruits were plum-shaped, a deep tomato red, with a thin skin (like the skin of a plum) stretched tight over a jelly-like flesh surrounding tiny seeds (much like a tomato). It was a little sweet, with a clear taste that I have no idea how to describe. I came home to Seattle, home to glossy clementines and baggy-skinned satsuma oranges with their dusty leaves, and those strange red fruits were consigned to the far reaches of my memory.

Most of my encounters with exotic fruits happened during childhood vacations in the Far East. Perhaps the earliest memory I have is of eating lychees in the shade of weeping willows, on the shore of a little lake that held the tomb of a long-dead imperial concubine. Or something like that. I have forgotten the rest of the story, or even where we had been (probably somewhere outside of Xi'an), but I remember the red-brown pebbly skin of the lychees that peeled away to reveal translucent white flesh and the smooth, shiny dark seeds within. For years afterwards, fresh lychees were unavailable in the United States, and I only ate them during those hot summers in Taiwan. Even now they are inextricably tied to my childhood, like the carambola, more commonly known as starfruit.

The starfruit is my second favorite exotic fruit, with its green-tinged yellow skin and flesh, and sweet-tart juiciness. It is most likely that, as a small child, I loved how the fruit fell into perfect star-shaped slices more than I loved the taste; I would eat each piece point by point until my plate of stars was gone. Years later I would sometimes find them at the supermarket and buy one or two, but somehow they weren't the same. I had the sense that they were not nearly as sweet or as juicy as I remembered them being, more green than yellow, and it was then I began to understand that with food, there is a sense of place. The starfruit belonged to childhood summers, to the heat and humidity of a Taiwanese summer, as did everything else I ate in those days, the lychees, the bell-shaped lian wu (known in English as "wax apple" or "bell fruit") that had a pinkish-red skin and a crisp white flesh.

So now I save my longings for lychees and starfruit and lian wu for when I am in Taiwan again. I would not try to find them here; they belong to that faraway place. But that is fine with me. Here I have red-tinged Fuji apples in the fall and clementines and Satsuma oranges in the winter and pink-flushed golden Rainier cherries in the summer. The best of both worlds.

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