Tuesday, 15 September 2009
Chempedak - heaven, with a hint of something rather more sensual
It's hard to describe the chempedak, it's my all time favourite fruit, possibly favourite food. I have 1/2 a chempedak drying just now and the smell is driving me crazy: it's like walking into a candy store as a kid with a pocketful of change, buying a mix and cramming it all at once into my mouth - that's the heaven part, the hell part - well it's not so much hell, but I don't think the heady sensuality, the tactility, the heavy warmth of the aroma or the enveloping nature of the taste is something that goes so well with the traditional take on heaven. It's so decadent a fruit. I found myself face first in the remains of it, after I had extracted all those golden lobes and had scraped as much as I could with my fingers I buried my face in what was left trying to savour as much from the outer flesh as I could. Finally I somehow awoke from my reverie somewhat embarrassed and very sticky, face and hands covered in sweet goo. . . Oh chempedak.
Artocarpus integer is closely related to breadfruit (Artocapus altilis), marang(Artocarpus odoratissimus) and jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus). It's native to Malaysia where it's eaten young as a vegetable, mature as a fruit: fresh, fried in batter or made into ice-cream. The fruit has a strong smell when ready, stronger even than durian and can be mistaken for natural gas - the first time I smelled one I hunted all over the kitchen for the gas leak. It's not such a large tree, at least those I've seen growing in this area aren't very large, although they are all still in their 20s at most. The fruits grow in clusters straight out of the trunk and larger branches, just like the jackfruit. The trees begin to produce between 3 and 6 years and can produce twice a year, with one harvest being heavier than the other.
The fruits take about 6 months to mature and are somewhat cylindrical shaped with a green, yellow skin covered in flat or slightly raised hexagons, each with a dot at its center. They soften as they ripen. Each fruit, between 8 and 12 inches perhaps, breaks apart to reveal around 25 to 30 seeds, large like the durian and fatter than jackfruit seeds. The seeds are wrapped in golden yellow sweeter than honey envelopes of flesh. It's sticky, but nothing like the jackfruit, not as much as the marang either, and the seeds are easy to remove. The flesh is far more like jackfruit than durian and has a firmness which becomes deliciously chewy (like taffy) when dried.
In 'The Fruit Hunters', Adam Leith Gollner describes sneaking his chempedak round the back of his hotel and gorging on it, he compares the taste to his childhood favourite - Fruit Loops. I've never had Fruit Loops, but would be delighted to find they tasted the same. It's that kind of fruit - it becomes in an instant a treasure, a somewhat secret joy to be taken quickly, all at once and in hiding, while one is lost in the very pleasure of it. Something primal about it. It's wonderful, I'm planting a field of them!
Chempedaks are what's termed 'ultratropical' - they won't grow below a certain temperature, they like to be in warm, humid climates, preferably with shade and out of the wind. Definitely a forest tree, so maybe I won't plant a field, maybe I'll search out secret hidden spots in the jungle for my secret, hidden fruit.