A couple of weeks ago I took a train trip. It wasn’t a long trip – about 40 minutes – but I ended up in Ho Chi Minh City, well in spirit at least. I’d taken a trip to Cabramatta in Sydney’s south-west. Renowned as the Vietnamese area of the city it’s a mass of shops selling Pho and Bahn Mee; little old ladies in embroidered cardigans (and even the odd conical hat) sat by the side of the road selling a handful of vegetables they’ve grown in the garden, in the backstreet fish lie on ice in the fish market, the odd one even still flaps – if it wasn’t for the fact that I could cross the street without having to take the walk of faith in front of a thousand scooters I really would have thought that Sydney trains had mastered teleportation and I’d ended up in Vietnam. As someone who loves wandering round the markets of Asia I was in my element – but I soon realised this home-grown version was almost better.
One the things I love about Asian markets or food shopping areas is finding things I’ve never seen before – I wander about open mouthed and sometimes, the stall holders will realise I’m fascinated by whatever the berry, fruit or strange squishy thing is and try and explain – sometime I’ll even get a taste – but there’s normally a huge language barrier and so I never really know what things are, what to do with them or how to eat them. This once culminated with me nearly poisoning The Boyfriend in a Hanoi hotel room as he decided to munch his way through a gac fruit I’d brought home from a market tour. He took a mouthful just as I read the warning online about not eating the skin or the white pithy stuff inside (oops!).
However, I suddenly realised that here in Cabramatta, I had no such concern – while the fruits were labelled in Vietnamese writing, they also came with bold-as-brass English names – jujube, achacha, santol, I could google, make sure they weren’t going to kill me and then shop to my little hearts’ content. Even better when I took my haul to the counter the lady serving explained in English ‘that one you bite; this one you peel and eat the white but not the seed – the other one, same, same.’ Armed with my new found fruit munching skills I took them all home and eventually it was time for tasting…
First up was jujube.
Despite the fact that they look rather like a conker, I’d had high hopes for these as all over the market were signs saying ‘do not eat – $1 each if you eat them’ – I figured anything people were willing to pinch as part of their Saturday morning market trip must be amazing. Google had told me that jujube was known as Chinese dates. This meant I was expecting something sweet, sticky and gooey but as I bit in (as instructed) I was really surprised to find something with the texture and very similar taste to an apple. It wasn’t unpleasant, but nor would I be so desperate to have another one that I’d be stuffing them into my mouth as I walked past. Traditionally though jujube have a rich heritage – they are commonly used in Traditional Chinese Medicine particularly in teas for problems like sore throat. Research has also determined that are packed with at last eight different phytochemicals including some with calming properties and others that are good for lowering cholesterol (maybe that’s why people swipe them – they’re cheaper than statins!). Apparently they are also a good source of B vitamins and vitamin C. I’ve also since learned that if I want the sticky version I need to buy them processed. Jujube are sold all over Australia – I spotted them in Coles the other day. UK readers – dried jujube are the easiest for you to buy, but I have found a stockist of the fresh ones.
Next up was achacha.
These are small, round orange fruit, about the size of a large strawberry, but with a hard skin. You peel them and reveal a soft white flesh around a stone (rather like a mangosteen or lychee). Well, if the name is fabulous (go on, just try saying it again – it just makes me want to break into a rendition of Miss Baltimore Crabs from Hairspray), the taste is better – It’s almost like sherbet – I had only bought two but could easily have wolfed my way through ten – seriously, fruit farmers of the future, you need to work out how to make this thing bigger. Achacha don’t seem to have any medicinal super-powers – though they do contain vitamin C, are lower in sugar than many fruits and apparently rubbing the skin on a wart will help it (but I’m not endorsing that one!). Interestingly, despite their similarity to lychee and mangosteen, achacha aren’t a traditional Asian fruit. They’re originally from Bolivia but have made their way across Asia and Australia. If you find them on your travels you definitely want to try them – I’m a big fan. UK readers, apparently these are imported to the UK but they aren’t that easy to get – M&S sold them for a while but not now. If you can give any leads as to where to buy them please let me know in the comments section.
Now to the santol
Or not – as I decided to save this to try the next day. Big mistake. Huge. The next day came and went, as did the day after and the week after that. it was only when I was clearing out the fridge and wondered what the white plastic bag was in the back that I remembered I hadn’t actually got round to eating the santol – and it was a bit squishy by then. Shame as google tells me that a santol is an interesting mix of sweet and sour and it looks very interesting. However, on the bright side – the Bahn Mee I had while I was wandering about Cabramatta only cost $3.50 but was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever eaten. I even liked the carrot in it (regular readers will know that in my world carrot is the devil’s vegetable but it seems that if you sprinkle Maggi Seasoning on carrot and bung it in a sandwich with pate, chilli, herbs and cucumber you create a vegetable of magnificence). I can now use the fact that I need to go and try and santol as my excuse to go back and have another sandwich too!
If you’re in Sydney and have a spare half day, I definitely recommend heading out to Cabramatta, Just take the train from Central station. It only takes an hour or two to wander round the square of streets between John Street and Hughes Street – don’t forget to pick up a sandwich at Viet Hoa Hot Bread (I went to the one on Hill Street) while you’re there. Weekends are apparently the best time to visit as that’s when the ladies set up their mini-market along John Street.
Fancy whipping up your own Vietnamese dishes? Maybe check out the recipes of Luke Nguyen, arguably Australia’s most popular Vietnamese chef*.
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