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Forbidden Fruit: Something About a Mangosteen
September 24, 2003
By R. W. APPLE Jr.
I'm a big-time mangosteen addict, which presents problems.
The mangosteen - a tropical fruit about the size of a
tangerine, whose leathery maroon shell surrounds moist,
fragrant, snow-white segments of ambrosial flesh - can't
get a visa. Mangosteens may not legally be imported into
the United States. They may not legally be shipped to the
mainland from Hawaii, where a few sturdy souls have lately
begun to grow them anyway.
Here in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, notably
Vietnam and Singapore, people buy them by the bagful for
small change. In Vancouver and other Canadian cities with
big Asian populations, you can find them at street markets
and greengrocers. In Paris, Fauchon will sell you one for a
prince's if not quite a king's ransom.
But back home in Washington, the best I can do without
jumping on a plane is the wooden mangosteen, handsomely
carved and oiled, that sits on my desk there.
So what, you may say. What's he getting worked up about? He
can gobble up papayas, mangoes and even rambutans when he
gets a tropical itch. In the summer, he can eat perfectly
ripe peaches, still warm from the tree, and dark, sweet
plums whose juices squirt out when a tooth breaks through
their taut skins.
Friends have accused me of craving mangosteens because they
are beyond my reach, the way children in the old Soviet
Union craved oranges. Not guilty, say I.
No other fruit, for me, is so thrillingly, intoxicatingly
luscious, so evocative of the exotic East, with so precise
a balance of acid and sugar, as a ripe mangosteen. I
thought so when I first tasted one half a lifetime ago, in
Singapore, and I've thought so ever since. I'd rather eat
one than a hot fudge sundae, which for a big Ohio boy is
saying a lot.
"By popular acclaim," writes the British-born Malaysian
author Desmond Tate in "Tropical Fruit" (Tuttle Publishing,
2001), "the mangosteen is held to be the most delectable of
all the tropical fruits, and it has been proclaimed their
queen. There is no doubt about the luxury of its taste. It
has won unstinted praise down the ages from all who have
encountered it."
I could tell you that the flavor reminds me of litchis,
peaches and clementines, mingled in a single succulent
mouthful, but words can no more describe how mangosteens
taste than explain why I love my wife and children. Merely
typing the name makes my mouth water. Whenever in my
travels I spot a mound of those precious orbs in a
marketplace, my heart pounds.
For years, before she finally tasted one, I drove my wife,
Betsey, almost around the bend talking about mangosteens,
telling her that whatever luxurious item we were consuming
at a given moment was no match for my forbidden fruit.
I'm not alone in my mania. My friend Gay Bilson, one of
Australia's greatest cooks, says that the first time she
cut open a mangosteen and tasted a segment, she "burst into
tears at the sheer perfection of it, almost pushed to
mawkish poetry."
Karen Caplan, president of Frieda's, a wholesaler of
specialty produce in Los Alamitos, Calif., said she could
not believe her senses at age 16 when her mother gave her a
bite of a ripe mangosteen from Belize.
Queen Victoria reportedly offered a knighthood to anyone
who could bring her a specimen in edible condition. Nobody
ever managed to snatch the prize.
In her time, the problem was spoilage. In our day and our
country, it is the Mediterranean fruit fly, which the
Department of Agriculture, ever vigilant in its protection
of domestic crops, does its best to stop at the borders of
the continental United States. Mangosteens can be infested
with the dread insect, and until recently, no safe way to
assure "disinfestation," as the bureaucrats call it, had
been found.
Yet there are tantalizing prospects that the gates may
open, if not this year, then next year, or someday soon.
THE breakthrough, or rather the potential for one, came
last October, when the government issued a ruling that all
fruits and vegetables that might carry fruit flies could
now be irradiated for sale in the United States.
Irradiated papayas and other fruits from Hawaii have been
sold in California for several years. But the new ruling
could open the huge American market to growers all over the
world, and could bring mangosteens to American dinner
tables at last.
Before that can happen, however, a risk assessment must be
carried out for each type of fruit and each producing
entity, according to Dr. I. Paul Gadh, an import specialist
at the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health
Inspection Services in Riverdale, Md., near Washington. He
said he could offer no prediction on when the work on
mangosteens might be completed.
Equipment to carry out irradiation, manufactured by the
SureBeam Corporation of San Diego, is already in operation
in Hawaii and Brazil, and a system has recently been sold
to Vietnam.
Mark Stephenson, a SureBeam vice president, said that
fruits (or meats, on which it is already widely used) are
briefly bombarded with a stream of electrons similar to
X-rays. The electron beams are generated by electrical
power, he said, and no nuclear materials are used.
The process raises the temperature of the material being
irradiated by only one degree, causing no change in the
taste or the texture. It eliminates pests and retards
spoilage by destroying harmful food-borne bacteria. But it
has generated controversy.
Although approved by the American Medical Association, the
American Dietetic Association, the World Health
Organization and other bodies, irradiation has long been
opposed by a few activist groups. The most prominent of
these is Public Citizen, founded by Ralph Nader, which has
contended that more detailed research is needed on the
long-term results of irradiation before it can be
considered safe.
"Exposing food to ionizing radiation results in the
formation of potentially carcinogenic compounds," Wenonah
Hauter, a Public Citizen official, told a Congressional
committee in 2001. She also asserted that the process
destroys crucial vitamins.
Christine M. Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer
Research at the University of California at Davis,
dismissed such criticisms out of hand. "There is no
indication whatsoever of any ill effects," she said,
arguing that Public Citizen's views were based on outdated
and irrelevant data.
"Any worries about irradiation are very small," said
Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for
Science in the Public Interest, based in Washington. "I
would welcome more research, but I haven't been exercised
about this, and I'm still not."
Still, consumer resistance to irradiated foods has been
high, and some supermarkets do not stock them. James
Parker, director of the northern Pacific region for Whole
Foods, a Texas-based chain, told The San Francisco
Chronicle that he welcomed the phase-out of methyl bromide
disinfestation that irradiation might help make possible,
but would not carry irradiated produce.
"We don't want the cure to be worse than the disease," Mr.
Parker said. "We still don't know the long-term effects."
THE mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana) originated, most
botanists believe, in Malaysia or the Sunda Islands of
Indonesia. Fruits are borne on very slow-growing evergreen
trees with glossy, dark green leaves and pyramid-shaped
crowns. At maturity the trees, which require high humidity
and heavy rainfall, can reach 40 feet in height and yield
up to 1,000 fruits a year.
Mangosteen trees can tolerate no temperature below 40
degrees Fahrenheit, which restricts their range. Outside of
Southeast Asia, they have flourished in just a few places -
southern India, some islands in the Caribbean (where they
produce inferior fruit) and Queensland, in northeastern
They have done badly in California, worse in Florida.
Commercial cultivation is in its early stages in Hawaii, on
the rainy east coast of the Big Island, around the city of
Hilo, where mangosteens are sold in the farmers' market.
But mangosteens have been known to American botanists for a
century. In 1930, the great plant explorer David Fairchild,
who lived near Miami, wrote as follows about the fruit:
"It is so delicate that it melts in the mouth like ice
cream. The flavor is quite indescribably delicious. There
is nothing to mar the perfection of this fruit, unless it
be that the juice from the rind forms an indelible stain on
a white napkin. Even the seeds are partly or wholly lacking
and when present are very thin and small."
Ms. Caplan, the produce wholesaler, said she doubted that
the mangosteen would match the kiwi fruit in rapid
acceptance in the United States. But once available, she
predicted, it would gain immediate popularity among
Asian-Americans, with the remainder of the population
following along later, perhaps in seven or eight years.
For the most part, mangosteens are eaten out of hand. (A
real fan has trouble getting them home; they tend to
disappear in the car on the way from the market.)
In southern Thailand, around Phuket, Thais use green
mangosteens in a vegetarian curry. In Goa, they are used in
a fish curry. Like soursops, a more fibrous fruit with a
similar taste, they make a rich, heady sorbet.
In his encyclopedic "Thai Food" (Ten Speed Press, 2002),
David Thompson includes an enticing recipe for beef and
mangosteen soup. Anyone for mangosteen margaritas?
Lore and legend seem to follow this fabulous fruit wherever
it goes.
One Sunday morning at Bangkok's rich Aw Taw Kaw open-air
market, Bob Halliday, an American writer and translator who
has lived in Thailand for 35 years, showed me how to pick
the best ones.
"Squeeze them," he advised, as he did just that. "They
should yield to pressure, and should have no hard spots.
The darker the color the better the taste."
At the stem end, mangosteens have four waxy sepals. At the
other, they have four to eight flat, woody lobes, arranged
in a pretty rosette. That much I had known. What I had not
known, and what Mr. Halliday told me, is that the number of
those lobes corresponds exactly to the number of fruit
segments arranged inside as exquisitely as the jewels
inside a Fabergé egg.
Dubious, I bought and then cut open five or six mangosteens
right then and there, strictly in the spirit of scientific
inquiry, of course. He was right.
On another day, in another market, Aun Koh, a young
Singaporean photographer, explained to me the Chinese
belief that the primary forces influencing bodily health
are heat and coolness.
In this balance between yin and yang, mangosteens supply
the cool element to offset the heat of the other most-loved
Southeast Asian fruit, the huge, spiky durian, whose foul
aroma would stun a goat. Many Asians therefore like to
consume the two fruits at the same time.
"We describe the mangosteen as the queen of fruits," he
reminded me. "We call the durian the king."
Well, I for one have always preferred the company of
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