Thai Fruits: Longkong

Despite its humble appearance, the longkong may be one of the more exotic fruits I’ve documented so far. I say this because it doesn’t appear to have an English name, and very few people outside of tropical Southeast Asia seem to have any knowledge of it.

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“Oh, you mean longan?” someone will inevitably ask.

“No, longkong,” I’ll state again for the umpteenth time, really trying to annunciate that last ‘g’.

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Since trying longkong for the first time over a year ago, it has earned a spot in my pantheon of fruit :) It has a deliciously light, sweet taste, cut through with a zing of acidity which wakes up the mouth. Its texture is soft and though each segment is contained by a thin translucent skin, when you bite into the fruit you discover its juicy nature.

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As you can see in the picture above, it is easy to peel and kind of miraculously splits evenly and geometrically in several triangular pieces. No knife required here. It does have a bit of white sap which leaves a slightly sticky residue on your fingers though. No problem, just dab your hands with moisturizer or a bit of oil after eating to remove the sap.

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When eating longkong, be wary of its seeds. Usually there are just one or two seeds per fruit (generally depending on the size of the longkong), but trust me when I say you really don’t want to bite into one! The seeds are bitter; to me they taste exactly like pine resin smells. They’re easily avoided though, as you can see a greenish brown seed lurking through the translucent skin and flesh of the fruit segment.

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Longkong is high in phosphorus and vitamin C. More importantly, it’s totally delicious. I’ve read that longkong is being more widely cultivated, so if you’re lucky enough to run across it wherever you are, I recommend picking up a bunch.


Finding Love in an Indian Carpet Shop

I’ve been forthcoming about my love of traveling, my love of writing and teaching, my love for sampling fresh vegan food from all over the world, and about my unholy obsession with durian, but now it’s time to introduce you to a love affair which I often neglect and rarely indulge—my passion for textiles.
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Kaftans in Beirut
It seems right to blame my father for this, after all, he gets the blame for so little. (Which is only fair; he is a peerless and wise soul.) But I really think I can trace my textile crush back to my first time in India, when, as a curious and slightly awkward sixteen-year-old, I followed him into a reputable carpet shop where we sat in small plastic chairs drinking warm chai and cold pepsi as the carpet sellers rolled out glistening silk carpets, layer upon layer, at our feet. My dad bent down to examine the individual threads. I too crouched on my knees and, in youthful exuberance, eyeballed the carpet so closely my nose pressed against its shimmering surface. He turned over a corner to look at the underside and check the knot count. I followed his lead, wrinkling my forehead and squinting at the carpet through one eye. When he remarked on the fineness of the design, I would nod my head in agreement. He taught me to look for little flaws and asymmetry and to cherish them—they are the mark of a handmade carpet. And when he showed me the difference between a pure silk, silk/wool blend, and wool carpet, I focused intently. (Hint: silk shines and lays flat; wool is fluffy and opaque and stands on end.)

I remember spending hours in that shop as two salesmen unfurled carpet after carpet, each one a jewel of brilliant colors, intricate designs, and breathtaking workmanship. The animation of carpets before me, like stills whirring in a film reel, mesmerized me and the way the salesmen handled the rugs—roughly, familiarly—was shocking to me. The carpets were works of art, so vibrant with color and life; surely they deserved more respect. Another revelation came to me when I stood up and tiptoed toward a deep-red carpet accented with a pale blue tree-of-life design.
“You can walk on it,” the salesman urged me.
“What? But it’s so beautiful!”
“It is a carpet,” he laughed. “It is made to be walking on.”

I felt foolish, but of course he was right. A good carpet would outlast its owner and would continue to look beautiful in old age. I slipped out of my sandals and plodded slowly from tassled end to tassled end. I could feel the silk underfoot. How smooth and flat the threads lay! The pile lay so flat in fact that the carpet appeared different from each end. Peering with the lay of the silk, I saw a lustrous, almost shining pastel coral and baby blue pattern. From the other end, looking against the lay of the tufted silk, that same carpet was darkly luminous, filled with blood red and deep azure.
We spent hours in the shop and didn’t buy a single thing. Though my father wanted to buy a carpet, and this was the first time I’d ever seen him enthusiastic about shopping, he refused to settle for a carpet he didn’t absolutely love. I was simply thrilled that he wanted to buy anything at all because my father has a pretty strict anti-clutter rule, and used to make me give or throw away something every time I wanted to buy anything new. As a fashion-obsessed teen, this drove me crazy. As a lightweight traveler now, I am grateful for his training.

Streets and shops of India
The next day, in a different carpet shop, we went through the same routine. But this time, somewhere in the layers of unfurled carpets draped before us, my dad found love; he found the carpet he had been waiting for.
In those two days and in those carpet shops, I too found love. Though I didn’t just find it in that pancake stack of jewel-toned carpets. I found love in the careful knotting of thread, in each hand-cut tuft of silk, in the delicate flora of the designs, and in the purity and exuberance of the colors. I found love in textiles.


Thai Cotton Candy Burrito

Known as Roti Sai Mai, or, as I’ve dubbed it, the Thai Cotton Candy Burrito. I should confess, though. I’ve never actually tried it as it’s basically sugar wrapped inside more sugar. I have heard it’s delicious and I can verify that it certainly is pretty and would make a great snack for a pride party or parade! Just look at the pastel rainbow!

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The vendor starts with bags and bags of spun pastel-hued cotton candy. Then, using a roti or crepe mixture made of rice flour and colored lime green with pandan leaves, she quickly cooks the thinnest little roti, using a spatula to scrape away the excess dough. Watch the video below to see her in action. I’d like to learn more about that dough; look how it stays in her hand like a wobbling blob of silly putty!

When you purchase roti sai mai, you get a stack of roti and a bag of cotton candy. The assembly is easy: just fill your roti with the cotton candy, roll it up, and eat. I think I’ll have to try it soon because who am I kidding? I like my sugar with a side of sugar, thank you very much.


How to Eat a Pineapple

I know. I bet you didn’t think you needed instructions.

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Well, you probably don’t. Just hack that thing open and go to town, mess and waste be damned. But I thought you might like to learn how people here in Southeast Asia cut and prepare their pineapple. It’s something I’d never seen before moving to this part of the world.

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But first, a little tidbit about the fruit itself. Pineapple is an all-season fruit, available year round. But when I first arrived in Cambodia, I look for it in the market and couldn’t find it. A hint first came to me in char kreung, a yellow curry with vegetables and chunks of sweet sour pineapple. I had been looking on the wrong side of the market. The pineapple wasn’t next to the mangoes and rambutan, instead it was with the cucumbers, limes, and eggplant in the vegetable side. So although pineapple is technically a cluster of berry-like fruits, in this part of the world, possibly due to its common usage in savory dishes, pineapple is sold like a vegetable.

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Now to the instructions. Top and tail that sucker, then cut just enough to remove the skin. Don’t cut so deeply that you remove the little black eyes. You’re conserving precious pineapple flesh here!

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Using a small, agile knife, cut along one side of the eyes. You’ll be cutting in a diagonal fashion across the pineapple. You can follow the eyes in a leftward or rightward (as I did in the photo above) diagonal. It makes no difference.

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Cut in a parallel diagonal line on the other side of the eyes, angling the knife a bit inward and under the eyes so you can remove the little strip of flesh that contains the row of spiky and sharp eyes. Continue this process until every line of eyes has been removed.

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Et voila! Your de-eyed (oh, the violence!) pineapple is ready to eat.

I’m not going to lie. This method is more work and requires a bit of knife skills, but it conserves more of the delicious pineapple so the fruit can end up in your belly instead of in the compost.


Sweet Sticky Rice with Mango

I think khao niew ma muang, or sticky rice with mango, must be the most famous of all Thai sweets. And don’t get me wrong, it deserves that fame, especially when the mango is perfectly ripe and in season.

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Even without fruit, sweet sticky rice is a first-rate treat, but with a juicy and purely sweet mango it becomes something divine. The sticky rice is steamed first then mixed with salted coconut sauce until the rice absorbs all the sauce and becomes plump and shiny.

When you buy sweet sticky rice in the market, it comes premade with an additional bag of salty sweet coconut sauce. When you’re ready to eat, simply pour the sauce over the rice and cut mango and top with some crunchy and salty fried yellow mung beans (not pictured).

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In the market, sticky rice with mango will cost around 30 baht ($1.00) but if you have access to your own kitchen, I suggest buying sweet sticky rice and cutting your own accompanying mango when you’re ready to eat it. For a change, you could try using fresh pineapple or, my favorite, durian! If you want to make khao niew ma muang at home, this looks like a good recipe with clear instructions. Usually tapioca starch is not used, so feel free to leave that out if you prefer.


An Ode to Comfortable Shoes

Don't bother with uncomfortable shoes. Now is not the time to break in a new pair or wear your chicest pair. As a traveler, you simply never know when you may need to walk long distances. You may find yourself in Kapadokya, Turkey, kilometers from the nearest paved road, when your driver decides to take off and leave you there. As you walk through grape orchards and walnut groves and into the setting sun, won’t it be nice to be able to focus on the stunning view instead of painful blisters and your poor abused feet? So if you can't walk at least 3 km in your shoes, don't pack them.

You know what? I’m going to take that even further. Don’t bother with any uncomfortable clothing. If you can’t sit in it for twelve hours on a mountainous bus ride, it has no place in your pack.

And while you’re at it, roll your clothing instead of folding. This takes up less space and keeps everything looking neat and smooth, though you probably shouldn’t be packing anything that wrinkles anyways.

I know this advice is boring and prosaic, and it’s so common-sense that you don’t need me to tell it to you. You’ve probably heard it or thought it before and you had the best intentions when packing, really you did, but then that cute new shirt you just bought gave you puppy dog eyes and so you couldn’t leave it at home and you’re planning on hiking so of course you needed to buy new hiking boots for the trip, never mind that they’re not broken in yet. So this tip comes with an extra freebie: take the above advice. No excuses, no exceptions.



Did I say no exceptions?

Fine, an exception: Pack one dress. Lightweight jersey, non-wrinkling. You never know when you’ll end up at swank nightclub in Beirut surrounded by gorgeous Lebanese women who are all doing a remarkable brunette-Barbie impression. (Seriously. Lebanese women are stunning.) On occasions like this you’ll be happy to pull out your (unwrinkled) dress and feel like a lady, instead of feeling like a shlubby traveler.



Let the fruit exploration continue!

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I remember reading a book that detailed the story of a dying woman’s last wish to eat one more mangosteen before she died. Naturally, this story piqued my interest in the fruit.

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Years later, during my first week in Cambodia, my host bought me a cartoonish purple fruit with a silly little hat of lime green leaves. I had no idea what it was and no clue how to open it. “It’s a mangosteen, of course!” she exclaimed, digging her thumb into the base to pry open the fuchsia exterior. The interior of the mangosteen surprised me completely. Those neon white sections, almost like a monotone little mandarin orange, were perfectly contained within the thick purple shell. This fruit was totally blowing my mind and I hadn’t even tasted it yet.

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The texture is as juicy as a ripe peach and the flavor is similar in some ways as well. A mangosteen tastes pure, light, refreshing. Its flavor is a burst of sweet and tart in your mouth, but doesn’t linger, doesn’t bite your tongue, and definitely doesn’t weigh you down. The mangosteen is considered by Chinese medicinal wisdom to be a cooling fruit. This is one reason it is widely known as the queen of fruit, as it is generally eaten after consuming the heating durian, which is known as the king of fruit. Check back because I’ll be posting about durian and the World Durian Festival quite soon.

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Lastly, I want to share a little trick I recently learned about mangosteens. When you turn them over, you’ll see a daisy-like purple flower embossed on the base. Count the petals. However many petals you see on this flower is exactly how many sections of juicy white fruit are inside the mangosteen. Neat, huh?

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Red Dragonfruit

Now that I’m in Thailand, I’m eating fruit for breakfast every day. Many of these fruits are unique to Southeast Asia and other tropical climates so I thought it might be interesting to blog about such lesser-known fruits.
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Let’s start with my first choice for breakfast: dragonfruit.
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Dragonfruit is one of the most beautiful fruits I have ever seen. Just look at the pink and green skin with its scale-like protuberances (and wait till you cut it open!). It is a heavy, juicy fruit shaped like a mini nerf football. Its skin peels off easily with no need for a knife, which makes it easy to eat on the go but I’ve cut it open here so you can see the gorgeous, speckled interior. Dragonfruit comes in two common varieties, white and red. The white, though visually stunning, is not particularly flavorful.  It is most notable for its crisp and juicy texture and crunchy little black seeds—almost like a bland kiwi. A squirt of lime juice will liven it up, though. Here’s a tip I discovered when I was staying in Mui Ne, Vietnam (the epicenter of all things dragonfruit): pop the white dragonfruit in the fridge and eat it cold for a refreshing treat that will cut through a hot sticky climate.
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The red dragonfruit, in contrast, has a sweeter, more concentrated flavor. It is as juicy as the white dragonfruit, but is more perfumed, with a pure and mild sweetness uncut by any tartness. Like beets, it stains your hands red when you eat it, and be warned, it will color your, um, output (?) as well. I had a few apprehensive moments until I figured this out :)
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See how easily the peel separates from the fruit?
I’ve read that some people are trying to cultivate the dragonfruit more widely, but there are some inherent difficulties with this. The dragonfruit is a night-blooming cactus which is pollinated by a type of bat native to South and Central America as well as Southeast Asia but cannot be found in many other places. So if you see a dragonfruit in the U.S. or in Europe it will likely be very expensive as it’s either been shipped a long way or hand-pollinated in a boutique orchard. Therefore, I would recommend giving it a pass unless you’re desperate to try it.


The Little Things

Routine is a luxury. When you’re changing countries, changing rooms, living out of a backpack, a routine is difficult to establish and maintain. I tend to travel in spurts—weeks and months go by without ever fully unpacking—but occasionally I’ll stay in a place long enough to stack my books, hang my clothes, and use my oft-buried moisturizer. I lived in Cambodia, in Bulgaria, in Turkey, and now, I’m living in Thailand.
I’m volunteering and teaching here on an isolated campus 45 minutes from the next town. Beside teaching and preparing my lessons, my days are entirely my own and I have eagerly grabbed this opportunity to establish my favorite luxury—a routine. Every day I wake up early, do some yoga asanas and meditate. I eat fruit, plentiful tropical fruit, for breakfast. I prepare for my lessons, I teach, I write. And every day I run.
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Rambutan tree in season
I head out as the sun sets, as the sky dances with color and the thick air releases the heat. I run on a gravel and mud path, splashing through  puddles created each day by the insistent and unpredictable rain. I run past hibiscus plants, banana palms, orchids. I turn a corner and run under a canopy of cashew trees and I look down at the path in front of me riddled with gray crescent-moon cashew shells. I turn another corner and now I’m dodging branches laden with rambutan. The lower fruit is tentacled with green spindly arms but the rambutan in the higher sundrenched branches is red. A truck passes, heading into the fruit orchard I’ve left behind. A man riding in the pickup smiles and bows to me and I smile back, putting my hands together and bowing my head in response. It’s not the first time we’ve passed each other.
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Shriveled cashew nuts in the shell
By now, my body is loose and my pace quickens and I watch the track in front of me. A line of giant ants, their bulbous jet black bodies tottering on long stilt-like legs, crosses the path diagonally. If it’s not too muddy I see them here every day, always crossing in the same place, always heading in the same direction. I wonder absentmindedly where they are going, but then the scenery changes and my mind is fluid and my thoughts are too slippery to hold on to. What am I thinking about as my feet pound the rain-soaked ground, as I leap over the one puddle which consumes the entire path?  I am consumed by the rhythm of my body, of my feet and my breath and my pulsing blood. I round another corner and begin the most uneven stretch of my run. Each day on this stretch the puddles shift; they move and shrink and expand with the fierce sunshine and the intermittent rain. So each day I weave between them, forging a new zigzagging path. Then, with sweat droplets peppering my face and splatters of grit peppering my legs, I run up the broken sidewalk toward my room. Instead of feeling relief that the run is over, as I used to do, I bound up the concrete stairs, dancing a little at the rhythm still playing in my head.
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Banana palm with a hanging purple banana flower
In my travels I generally prefer to never take the same path twice. When faced with a decision, I tend to operate on the Principle of Least Opportunity (don’t bother googling it, my friend Justin coined the phrase) which states that when faced with more than one option, you should choose the one you may never have the opportunity of taking again. Yet these days I sleep in the same bed and wake at the same time. I leap the same puddle, wai (bow to) the same man, and dodge the same ants as I go for my daily run. I revel in the little changes, the shifting puddles, of my daily life and ensconce myself in the luxury of routine.


Thai Street Food: Khao Niao Tat

How many times can I say something is my favorite until you stop believing me?

This is another of my favorite Thai sweets. It’s the perfect bite-size snack and again has that great mix of sweet and salty and creamy.

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Khao Niao Tat is a base of coconut sticky rice topped with a sweet and salty coconut cream custard. There’s a scattering of black beans throughout. It is a great mix of textures, from the chewy sticky rice to the creamy and soft custard and the occasional bite of black bean. The flavor is phenomenal as the salt helps to cut through the sweetness. I’m always amazed at how Thai sweets use just three simple ingredients—rice, coconut, and sugar—to create a whole multitude of delicacies.

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You can buy Khao Niao Tat by the square, each one about half the size of my palm, for only 5 baht (less than $0.17) and they come wrapped and packaged in a little banana leaf pouch. Here’s a recipe in case you want to try making it at home.