King Norodom Sihanouk and Queen Monineath are not the only royalties to hold court in Cambodia. The country's selection of tropical fruits also keeps a court of its own; with the durian a revered king and the mangosteen an honored queen. To complete the royal fruit family, the lemut should be named prince and milk fruit bestowed the honor of princess. Although each fruit has its own loyal subjects, hungry palettes savor other fruits too, including the j'an fruit, kuy fruit, rkomduol, pineapple, chumpoo, jackfruit, papaya, watermelon, banana, mango and rambutans. It is a common sight to see vendors slicing and dicing bits of colorful fruit along Phnom Penh's busy streets. To some, fruit is fruit, but a closer inspection will reveal that vendors are selling both domestic and foreign goods. Few have the eyes or the nose to tell them apart, so next time you happen upon a fruit stall, take a closer look and see if you can sniff out a difference.
Fruit connoisseurs would suggest that the durian, mangosteen or mango is typically Khmer. The delicious lemut and juicy milk fruit also are domestically grown and are a delight not to be missed. Eating Khmer fruit is truly an indulgence, since most fruit available in Western markets is chemically treated and mass-produced.
No single Khmer fruit looks nor tastes the same. For folks visiting Cambodia, it would be absurd to choose an imported apple or orange over an exotic, locally grown fruit free of toxins.
The lemut and milk fruit have emerged from the earth for generations to feed hungry Cambodians. They also can be used to decorate plates for important events such as wedding ceremonies.
Traditionally party revelers celebrating a friend's wedding would select five kinds of fruit to be displayed. Because imported fruits have gained popularity, however, people lately have been known to use apples and grapes as a new decoration. While they may not be in vogue, Cambodian fruit still carry a great significance and value to religious wedding ceremonies. Both the lemut and milk fruit plants have thick, sticky milk-like sap associated with richness, making them an auspicious offering at special events.
Milk fruit is known to be available only in Cambodia and Vietnam. The underbelly of the leaf is a greenish purple hue, while the top is a deep green.
The smooth, round plant contains sticky white latex and can grow to about 200 grams in weight. The exterior of the compound fruit is deep purple when ripe and light green when unripe. A creamy white flesh lies beneath the skin and tastes juicy and sweet. While enjoying the fresh food, be careful not to eat the few seeds imbedded in its flesh.
Unlike the smooth milk fruit, the lemut plant is rigid and bushy, full of thick rich latex-like sap. When the fruit is nearly ripe, its small leaves emit a sweet scent. The fruits are oval in shape although slightly elongated like a duck's egg. The lemut's brownish flesh is covered by a thin skin that should remain uneaten. This soft, juicy fruit also is seeded and is quite a nuisance to handle when unripe. Be careful not to pick a green one, or you could be attacked by the lemut's sticky sap.
Lemut and milk fruit are grown in abundance during Cambodia's warm season, between March and July. Hungry shoppers can buy a dozen pieces of milk fruit for 7,000 riel. The lemut is sold for approximately 4,500 riels per kilo. For a more expensive treat, bite into the pungent durian. With small seeds, there is plenty of thick, rich flesh lying in wait beneath the fruit's shell. Kampot province farmers produce the most durian in the country, while farmers elsewhere are known for their tasty mangosteen. Good things come in small packages, especially when the tiny mangosteen is cut open.
Beneath the surface is a pure white delicacy fit for a king. Visitors strolling along Cambodia's vibrant streets must stop to admire not only the colorful appearance of sidewalk vendors' fare but their fruit's succulent taste and texture as well. Although Khmer fruit may be found in markets across Southeast Asia, it is best to enjoy the treats while they are fresh. So next time you are stopped by a red, green or yellow delicacy, don't be a sour lemon and bite into the taste of Cambodia.