My first day in Taiwan, I was wandering around in the Ximending neighborhood, and saw this lady on the street corner selling what looked to me like green plush toys shaped like dinosaur eggs. She saw me looking, and I was toast—she grabbed me by the elbow and dragged me over to take a closer look. I didn’t understand a thing she was saying, but that didn’t stop her from launching into her sales pitch, putting a couple of the weird, bumpy aliens in my hands. I could see and feel that they were some kind of biological material, but they had no particular smell, so I was completely clueless as to what they were. I didn’t know whether to try to eat it, or sit on it to hatch it, or kill it with fire.
I made the international shrugging gesture for “WTF?” and she responded with the international gesture for eating – the rapidly repeated spoon-to-mouth wrist flip. Okay, it’s food. Got it. I followed up with the palms-up “how?” gesture, and she performed a winning charades move, demonstrating that you pick off the green bumps with your fingers, one by one, to open the top, and then plunge in with a spoon. So, I got one and took it home with me. She even threw in a spoon for me.
Back in my apartment, I followed her directions exactly, pinching off a big, green bump at what I thought was probably the top, and hoping I didn’t make the thing mad. Once I pierced the rugged skin, a sweet, tropical fragrance released into the room. Much better than Febreeze. The inside was a fluffy, creamy white. I looked closely to make sure it wasn’t breathing before I went in with the spoon. It wasn’t. Boy, did it smell good.
I scooped out a spoonful of the soft, segmented, sticky flesh and tentatively put it in my mouth, unsure if it would sting or what. Oh my goodness. So strange. Sweet as honey, and delicately floral. The flavor is not strong; the texture and sweetness are most prominent. But if I had to name it, I would say the flavor suggested the second generation after the love child of an apple and a banana. You know, kind of a diluted version of what I imagine that flavor combination would be.
But the texture? Flan. Flan with occasional seeds. Big, shiny seeds that look like those from a watermelon, but are the size of pumpkin seeds. (You spit those out. I checked later.) I ate the whole thing, scraping out the inside of the hull with the spoon.
I don’t know what it’s called in Chinese, but I later learned that it’s called a custard apple in English. Atemoya, if you want to get horticultural. It’s apparently a hybrid of a soursop, or sugar apple, and a cherimoya.
Once I knew what it was, I started seeing them all over the place, made into popsicles (yum), in fruit salads, or just cut into cubes in cups, to eat with toothpicks. But, I still like to eat it with a spoon, right out of its weird, preternatural shell, like the auntie selling them in the market taught me.
The custard apple isn’t the only fruit revelation I discovered for the first time in Taiwan. There were wax apples, or “lambu” in Taiwanese, that look like apples pretending to be bell peppers, and taste like apples pretending to be cucumbers.
They are crisp and watery and not especially sweet. Very refreshing on a hot day.
Then, there was roselle. Peculiar, dainty little roselle. I think it’s a succulent, but I’m not 100 percent sure. Not unlike a prickly pear.
Coquettishly pink, with a flavor like hibiscus flower tea. Makes fantastic popsicles. I suspect it would also make killer margaritas. Or, in this case, rosaritas!
In the southern part of Taiwan, I saw a lot of these bright green, fringe-bottomed weirdoes, and never did figure out what they were. I took to calling them U.F.O.s—unidentified fruity objects. If you know what they are, let me know in the comments. The fresh ones look like Zoidberg from Futurama. The chopped, dried ones taste, honest to god, like lemon-lime soda. They’re crunchy and zingy, like Bottle Caps candy. They sell them in another form, too; dried like prunes and pitch black from being treated with some kind of charcoal dust.
Those have a medicinal taste. The woman selling them kept pointing to her throat and making an “ouchy face” as I was sampling them. So, I assume she meant they were good for sore throats. Made sense, from the taste. Nature’s throat lozenge.
Dragon fruit is very popular, served everywhere cut fresh, or in neon purple smoothies. I was already familiar with dragon fruit, but I had only seen the ones with the white, black-flecked flesh before. These were blazing magenta inside. You don’t want to get the juice on your shirt, if you can help it, unless you want it that color.
Like the Koreans, the Taiwanese also acknowledge the tomato’s true status as a fruit. Even Ocean Spray tips its hat to the tomato’s fruity qualities, and includes it among the many fruits and berries with which it blends cranberry juice. I’ve heard of Clamato, but Cran-Mato? Ish. Blech! But, you can buy this juice blend in every convenience store in Taipei. Twenty-three million Taiwanese can’t be wrong. Or, can they….?
Not a fruit, but definitely strange, are the “ling jiao,” which seem to have many English names: the Jesuit nut, the bull’s horn, the bat nut, the winged water chestnut, and the devil pod. Or, just a ling nut.
I dubbed them moustache nuts, because if you flip them over, they look just like those black plastic, old timey barbershop quartet moustaches that pop up in stores around “Movember.” Indeed, these pods are in season in November, thus supporting my thesis. Vendors sell them on the streets, steamed or roasted, like you see chestnuts in New York. If you pinch them in the middle, one of the sides will pop off, and you can bite the soft, savory nut out of the remaining side of the pod. Quite tasty. Also said to have anti-cancer properties. But, if you buy a big bag of them and take them home, you have to eat them fairly soon. They grow mold really fast. Take it from me.