Unlike “banana,” “apple,” and the inexplicable “apple with a banana flavor” my first Chinese textbook insisted was real (as best as I can tell, it’s not), none of these fruits were a part of my beginning language classes. If I’d ever heard of them before, their names were nothing but bright abstractions conjuring islands, unfamiliar trees, hot suns. I learned to parrot the Chinese words for a series of fruits never real to me outside of Asia, in some cases later matching them with English names like “pommelo” or “red bayberry” or some other unfamiliar label (unrecognized by my version of Microsoft Word) that didn’t help explain to my father what it was I was waving in the corner of his computer screen.
These fruits are an interesting study of the connection between object and language. Often, the language in which something is first known becomes the default, as though that thing is more firmly entwined with its name in that language, that Chinese is its true name and English a paltry shadow, or English tied to its essence and Chinese a clumsy affixation. Sometimes it’s a matter of ease. Pommelo in Chinese has two syllables, 柚子youzi, and that becomes the name everyone around me calls it by, even in the midst of all-English conversations.
Having learned to categorize Clementines and Mandarins and Navels as “oranges” in the broad sense, I struggle in Chinese to make distinctions between fruits that all look like they belong to that family but are apparently strictly separated based on some invisible logic - small greenish globes with orange-like interiors; larger yellow-orange fruits also sectioned into slices sealed in semi-transparent white; palm-sized spheres slightly flat at the ends and easy to peel. They might be 橙子chengzi, 柑子 ganzi, 柑橘 ganju, or 橘子 juzi. No broader category of “orange” to sweep them all into. I’m still not wholly confident I have that one sorted out. Vendors are puzzled if I approach asking how much the chengzi cost while pointing at something that clearly belongs in the juzi category.
Names are the beginning. Learning to properly label a fruit is part one of the challenge that continues with finding out how to know when it is ripe and how to eat it, tasks that seem deceptively easy. It should be basic: peel, and eat, or don’t peel and just eat, but even choosing which of those two methods to follow can be a decision fraught with uncertainty.
With its fuchsia rind, this sweltering tropical fruit is the only one to ever rival my love for the wild raspberry.
Those tiny orbs were long banned from the U.S., and once imports began to trickle through in 2007, they would sell for fortunes a pound in upscale East Coast groceries.
The woman who would become one of the best friends China ever brought me introduced me to the mangosteen in the warmer months of 2012. Mountains of those dark magenta spheres were tumbling out the front of fruit stands lining the streets we walked toward our favorite coffee-shop haunts. She had spent part of her childhood in Sri Lanka and knew far more about how to choose and eat the fruits stacked in piles in Beijing’s bustling produce markets than I had learned growing up in Minnesota. It was summer in northern China. There were almost no blueberries, few strawberries, and not a raspberry for miles.
I wasn’t precisely sure what a mangosteen was, or how it differed from a mango. She taught me to choose the ones that give a little when pressed, that the hard ones are no good. She showed me how to dig my thumbnail into the rind, to crack open the woody red-purple shell, to peel it away in chunks and pull out the tender white heart, divvied into wedges like a Clementine, soft and sweet and drippy, melting into a single oblong brown seed. We bought bags of them. My fingernails gained a semi-permanent magenta cast, my palms became sticky.
This was the first summer I spent in Beijing.
For a long time, the U.S. banned import of a lot of Thai fruits, including the mangosteen (ostensibly to protect against the Asian fruit fly), and given the fruit’s fussy nature and short ripening window, few are imported from Asia even after irradiation has allowed for a reasonable level of security against invasive pests. A small number of persistent cultivators have started growing them in tropical Western hemisphere locales like Puerto Rico and Hawai’i. The New York Times reported $45-per-pound sales on 2007 Puerto Rican mangosteens in New York’s ritzy health food shops. In China they are an everyman fruit, where a handful of yuan will get you a bagful in the right season, instead of a $10-per-tiny-globe deal. Even with prices dropping some, the logistics seem to be against bringing the mangosteen into widespread popularity in North America.
The mystery fruit
I stumbled upon this fruit up in the mountains of 广西／Guangxi, one of China’s southern provinces. I have not seen it before or since. The sign read 猴头果 houtouguo. Google translate renders this as “hedgehog fruit.” It looked like a giant berry, its drupelets grown large and unyielding.
I asked the vendor how to eat it. She said “like a grape.”
When I was out of the mountains and back in Guilin, I showed the fruit to the woman working at my hostel and asked what it was. She told me she had no idea, and had never seen it before.
I carefully rinsed it and patted it dry, but as I plucked off sections and began to chew, (the outside fibrous and sort of mild ginger-fresh tasting), it occurred to me that “like a grape” might mean the way many Chinese people eat grapes, spitting out the skins, and not the way I was accustomed to eating grapes, skin and all.
At that point I decided to wait to make sure nothing bad was going to happen to me for swallowing sections whole before I continued my experimental fruit-eating.
The passionfruit with its firm-burst seeds was a fruit I’d seen only in beverages, most often chopped up into a beautiful mojito in one of Beijing’s back-alley artisan cocktail bars, and not something I’d encountered whole. I didn’t know it came in small bright-purple spheres, harder than a pear, smaller than an apple. Again, I had no idea how to eat it.
Visiting Guilin was the first time I saw people eating them as they walked, vendors sitting at the side of the road with buckets of them. Apparently one eats passionfruit with a spoon, cutting it open and scraping out the interior, butterscotch yellow tangles with black seeds to crunch through.
She sliced off the top and handed me a tiny plastic spoon. 1 yuan, 1 fruit.