The contents of a beautiful wooden bowl on the table of my hotel room in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta had me intrigued. What are those things? Fruit, certainly…but not a fruit I’m familiar with.
Staying at the grand colonial Phoenix Hotel, built in 1918 and now part of the M Gallery collection, for just a few days, I managed to squeeze in a couple of new food experiences. Travel’s sensory overload is so often about food – but I don’t often feel moved to write about it.
A little sign next to the bowl tells me that they are Salak pondoh, a popular and important fruit in Yogyakarta province, in Central Java. They are hard, brown, with a textured skin that – as I later found out – gives them the common name ”snake fruit”.
I tried to cut one open. It was so hard that for a minute I wondered if I’d mistaken an ornamental piece of the decor for the real thing. But eventually the tough skin split open to reveal creamy flesh and a hard seed inside. I didn’t eat it, but I remained curious.
Snake fruit were everywhere, in markets, in restaurants. I asked a woman in a restaurant how to eat one. She picked it up, split the top of it with her fingernail and deftly peeled the skin back, as you would with a lychee or rambutan. Ah…so easy. Soon I was eating one, but I remained puzzled. Why so popular? It was a bit like eating soap, but not as nasty. A bit tasteless really, and I decided I’d rather look at snake fruit than eat them.
There was still one more thing I wanted to try before I left. On the cafe tables at the Phoenix Hotel’s lobby bar was an ice-cream menu with some very interesting flavours. For around $6, you could order a selection of scoops, and on my last afternoon in Yogyakarta – taking refuge from the heat of the streets – I indulged in that pleasure. My choice of flavours went like this: mango, orange, rum and raisin, green tea, red bean…and durian.
Yes, durian! I hear those of you who’ve travelled in Asia gasp in disbelief – or perhaps wrinkle your nose in horror. Durian, for the uninitiated, is a common fruit in Asia, well-known for its pungent smell that reminds most people of…well, sewerage. It’s enough to make most people gag, to be honest. And no, I’ve never eaten durian, which I hear is quite delicious if you can get past the smell. Sorry, I can’t. But durian ice-cream, I thought, had to be different.
My six scoops of ice-cream arrived on a shining brass plate,with a parfait spoon on the side. The durian certainly had no smell, and it was not disgusting…but once again, the taste was almost an anti-climax. My equally curious and dubious friends clustered for a taste. But while I’m glad I tried the durian, the mango remained my pick of them all.