For the Jewish holidays of Rosh HaShana and Sukkot it is customary to eat a “new” fruit (one that hasn’t been consumed yet that season) so one may say the “Shehechiyanu” blessing (blessing and thanking G-d for giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this occasion). It is said not only over new fruit, but any first-time, momentous, and/or joyful experience. Alas, most of the fruit in my hometown market was stuff I had already tried. So I decided to head to the Asian market, which is filled with all kinds of interesting foodstuffs.
I was not disappointed, just overwhelmed. Imagine a supermarket filled with produce, canned goods, sauces, deli, meats and seafood, but 90% of the goods are unfamiliar, and almost all the signs are in Korean! The store is filled with Koreans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Laotians, East Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs, and Hispanics, but few speak English and no one is sharing recipes or cooking tips. I overheard the one other white person in the store, who was strolling with his African-American girlfriend, saying, “Gosh, I’ve never felt like such a minority before!”
I did bravely ask an oriental woman how one exotic vegetable was supposed to be cooked, and she scowled at me. “How I sposed to knaw?” she said in heavily accented English. “I Korean! Not Indonesian!” Well, excuse me! I guess it was the equivalent of asking a Yemenite Jew how to make gefilte fish.
Completely flustered, I took out my cell phone and started taking pictures of all the weird and wonderful stuff. I went home and looked everything up on the Internet, and then started searching for recipes. Mostly things sounded pretty complicated, or I couldn’t get kosher versions of certain necessary ingredients in the recipes. But there were a few that sounded doable and intriguing, so I returned to the market and went on a weird food shopping spree.
This is called Indian Bitter Melon. It looks like a cucumber but it has sharp spikes all along its surface.
Twian Squash. I still have no idea how one prepares it.
Nagaimo Root comes packed in sawdust. The recipe I looked up noted its slimy texture, good for slurping, and that was as far as I got. At least it was labeled in English!
Banana Flower is just what it says: the flower of the banana plant before it turns into a banana. According to recipes I found on the internet, it is unfortunately extremely delicate and is quite a potchke to prepare, so I passed on this one.
Rambutan is a weird but beautiful fruit.
I had seen dragonfruit before, when I went to shuk Machane Yehuda in Israel.
Galangal Root is from the ginger family. I sauteed it with various vegetables and it added a lot of flavor.
This is Durian fruit. It is very large and heavy (like a small watermelon in size) with a thorny husk. But oh, the smell! It is so noxious that it has been banned from several transportation systems in Southeast Asia, yet it is considered a delicacy. Let’s just call it an acquired taste. Watch this youtube video to get a sense of just how smelly it really is.
Lotus Root turned out to be a wonderful discovery. It is similar in taste to jicama root and has a potato-like texture. Peel it and then slice it; it has a beautiful, showy pattern. It’s great in soups, but I also loved it when sauteed and cooked with onion, garlic, soy sauce, honey and hot peppers, from a recipe I got online (“Stir-Fried Lotus Root with Sesame and Green Onions”)
Longhan berries are hard to find, but when you do, stock up! They don’t have much of a shelf life, but you will eat them so fast it won’t matter. Their taste is similar to lychee nuts. You peel the exterior (which resembles a less fuzzy, kumquat-sized kiwi) and the inside looks something like a peeled grape, although it is a translucent milky white color. Inside the flesh is a large, inedible pit. The only downside is that the peeled fruit resembles an eyeball – hence its English name, Dragon Eye.
And the winner for our shehechiyanu was Jackfruit, from the Caribbean. These mamas weigh 10 – 40 lbs. each and are 18″ – 24″ long. When you slice it (a machete is the tool of choice), you see pods and seeds. It’s the pods that are edible. They have a very intense taste, kind of like pineapple combined with tutti-frutti – – think Juicy Fruit Gum. You can click on this link to see a youtube demonstration on how to cut it.
What I learned: sometimes we get set in our ways, because things that are familiar to us are most within our comfort zone. But HaShem has created a glorious universe, and He created it for our benefit! It is there for us to sample, to try, to savor and appreciate. As our world gets smaller, things that previously would have been inaccessible to us from the other side of the globe are practically at our doorsteps. So get out there and discover the multitude of gifts that are part of HaShem’s world! And don’t forget to say “Shehechiyanu.”