Reptiles on your plate: snakefruit and dragonfruit

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Fruit stall beside the path into Goa Gajah, Bali. From top: monkey bananas, dragonfruit and snakefruit, and mangosteens

We have recently returned from two weeks in Bali. They were enjoyable and interesting in many ways and part of the fun was discovering new food. Our favourite ‘new’ fruit, by far, was the snakefruit – ‘salak’ in the local language and nearly ‘salak’ twice more in its botanical name, Salacca zalacca. 

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Snakefruit peeled

The skin gives it its name: hard and scaly, and layered like reptile scales so that you can stroke it one way but not the other. Peeling it (it’s easiest if you start at the top) reveals that it is thin and rather brittle like a lychee skin. The fruit itself, however, is firm and crisp. The texture of an under-ripe apple came to mind first, probably because of the similar taste and colour, but carrot is a nearer equivalent. The taste is sweet, acidic and astringent with a mild aroma. The fruit splits easily into two to four segments, often of unequal size; the larger segment/s normally have a single large stone like a date stone.

We were quite puzzled by what kind of plant the snakefruit could come from. It didn’t seem at all similar to anything we knew but fell into place when we found out that it is the fruit of a palm tree, borne in a tight cluster near the base of the palm. We never did succeed in seeing them growing so wikipedia will have to fill that gap. The tree does not appear to be cultivated in Australia at all, although it would probably grow well in our wet tropics.

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Fruit stall at the entrance to Tanah Lot temple, Bali: salak (in clusters) at each end of the back row with mangosteen and durian in between; bananas, dragonfruit and mandarins in front

Dragonfruit is more familiar, because it is grown in Northern Australia and is often available at our local markets in either white or red varieties (the colours referring to the flesh, not the skin). It is native to Central America but widely cultivated in South-east Asia; wikipedia will tell you more. Both varieties were common in Bali and the red variety often featured in smoothies and lassi (recipe), mainly (I suspect) for its spectacular bright magenta colour.

Dragonfruit is one of the few fruits – foods of any kind, actually – we obtain from a cactus and in Bali I saw the plant for the first time, sprawling over a fence in the village nearest our guesthouse near Ubud. Once I had recognised it for what it was by the (damaged) fruit, I noticed smaller plants elsewhere quite frequently.

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Dragonfruit in a village North of Ubud

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