Today, in search of some more interesting fruit, we cycled down to Vi-Mi to have a look at the Asian Supermarkets. Vi Mi is about 5 miles down the road from our apartment located around the junction of Colonial and Mills and is the thriving Vietnamese quarter of Orlando, also called Little Saigon. It is a district peppered with Vietnamese restaurants and supermarkets and shops where you can buy exotic imported music, films, and collectibles from across Asia. The Vietnamese started to come to Orlando in the 1970's as refugees from the war and have established businesses and lives here bringing with them their customs and, of course, their fascinating cuisine.
There are quite a few supermarkets but the one we visited before in search of the dragon fruit is probably the most interesting. The smell as you enter is indescribable and is due to the complete and utter cacophony of produce, all piled up and jostling for space, from live crabs to meats of unknown and unrecognisable origin, to lumpy and unidentifiable vegetables and fruit of all kinds, from the startling pink dragonfruit to persimmons and bits of cactus and aloe, and roots of this, that and the other. In one corner was a basket full of big prickly netted durians, the fruit that smells like drains and I have yet to experience. A diminutive Vietnamese lady in the shop laughed and held her nose but said they tasted like custard.
I wrote before that this is the place for a visual boost should your creativity be flagging. There are shelves and shelves of tinned and packaged foodstuffs dried and shredded things in bright shiny cellophane with brilliantly coloured writing. Sometimes there is a helpful English translation, often not. There are beautifully prepared sweets and pastries and what look like gelatinous appetisers and leaf wrapped delicacies.
It's a small shop too, and very busy, so wherever you stand, you are in the way. I have to return some other day with time to really browse.
Behind the counter were two fruits I wanted to try. One was the Rambutan, the red spiky sea urchin of the fruit world and the other the Longan, which I had never seen before. I tentatively asked the helpful man who was serving what to do with them and he smiled and immediately held out a sample to try. This is one of those situations where you have to hold your nerve and open both your mind and your mouth. New foods can be alarming but what can you say to such a kind offer except " delicious".
So to describe them.. well they look like big grapes but covered in a tough brown papery skin. This you peel. Its contents are surprising. The edible part is an opalescent jellylike berry with a beautiful dark shiny seed at the centre and yes, once you release the fruit from its tight papery covering it does look uncomfortably like a rheumy slippery eyeball.. this is apparently just too much for some people and they can't quite bring themselves to eat them.
The taste is quite bland and sweet but oddly moreish. We bought a bunch.
Longans, Dimocarpus longana are related to the more glamorous lychee. They are also known as "little brother of the lychee", "mamoncillo chino" in Cuba, and, because the translucent white flesh covering the black shiny seed resembles the eyeball of an oriental dragon, "the Dragon's Eye".
I found the neatest way to peel them was to score the skin with a knife tip. The two halves then come away leaving you with the jelly like flesh. The skin is very close fitting and inside its white shiny surface is covered with a network of veins, the fruit as it pops out actually bears creepy resemblance to a small wobbly brain too.
The little seed is beautiful, bright shiny brown with a white "eye". In both Vietnam, this "eye" is pressed against a snakebite in the belief that it will absorb the venom. The seeds also contain saponins, like my lovely Soapberries and yes, you can wash your hair with these seeds too!
You eat Longans just as they are, or canned. They can be cooked as pie fillings, poached as a side dish to roasts, dried, to be reconstituted as a "tea", added to tropical drinks or deliciously stuffed with nuts and honey and I think cream cheese would go well too.
Wiki has a nice little Vietnamese riddle which describes the Longan. Da cóc mà bọc bột lọc, bột lọc mà bọc hòn than. "Toad's skin covers tapioca wheat, tapioca wheat covers a ball of coal."
Longan, Dragons Eye