Register Tuesday | June 18 | 2019

Get Fruity

In search of the lost mangosteen

Last fall, I went on a whirlwind tour of the Pacific Rim. I was doing publicity for my first book, which meant my publishers were picking up the tab, and I was eating gloriously. On the first day in New Zealand, there was silky black cod. On the second, there was a fusion take on hangi, a traditional Maori roastógreat slabs of slow-roasted lamb smothered in a rich jus, stacked artfully atop wild rice and native greens. Australia yielded a sprawling alfresco buffet beside the Brisbane River and an elegant take on classic fish and chips on a harbourfront patio in Melbourne. And in Hong Kong, the rare, delicate, delectable hairy crabóhero of many a culinary legendówas in season, so a platterful of crabs accompanied the requisite dim-sum feast.

But through it all, I yearned for just one exquisite taste on my tongue. I couldn't wait to get to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's sleek capital and the last stop on my tour, where mangosteens awaited me like a long-lost love.

I'd first encountered my seductress five years earlier, on my first visit to the city, where it was being peddled in a side lane like a lady of the night. There was an enthusiastic Malay man bellowing a come-on, a handcart piled high with round stones the size of tennis balls and coloured the deep purple of a bruise. I'd been in Asia long enough to know that anything being sold on the street corner by the cartload was definitely in season, usually impeccably fresh and almost always tasty. Thus seduced, I bought a one-kilo bag for five ringgit (roughly a dollar-fifty).

A few steps from the cart, I stopped. I had no idea what I'd just bought nor did I know how to consume it. I turned, and apparently the look of confusion on my face told the whole tale, because the peddler immediately plucked a sphere from his cart, gripped it in both hands, twisted it hard in opposite directions, and then thrust the bottom half of the fruit into my hands. My seductress stared back at me in cross-section, half-naked, her purple corset pulled away to reveal a ripe bulb of opaque white flesh that was split into segments like a mandarin orange. I pulled the bulb from the rind with a firm tug, plucked off a slice and cautiously popped it in my mouth. And there exploded on my tongue a flavour so singular and unexpected and orgasmic that it all but made my knees buckle. I looked up at the peddler, my eyes wide with delight, to find him grinning at me knowingly.

I bought at least a kilo of mangosteens from him each day for the rest of my visit.

I've heard the flavour of the mangosteen described as a cross between grape and strawberry, which is like saying that pineapple tastes like peach mixed with grapefruit. It alludes to the true essence but doesn't do it justice. A mangosteen tastes like a mangosteen. It inscribes a sense memory too distinct to be stimulated by anything else, and it leaves behind a junkie's lust to have it again and again and again. And if you're not fortunate enough to live in Southeast Asia, it also leaves you with something that is increasingly rare in this world of global trade and near-limitless consumer choice: unfulfilled desire.

This was the giddy tickle I felt in my belly as I arrived in Kuala Lumpur last fallóthe certainty that I would soon sate a yearning that'd been mounting for five years. It was such a strange feeling I almost didn't recognize it. After all, there's almost no other commodity I can think of, gastronomic or otherwise, that could have remained so completely unattainable. I live in Calgaryóan arid prairie city hundreds of kilometres from a major portóand yet I can get papayas and mangoes at my local grocery store. There is a farmers' market near my house that sells ten kinds of Swiss cheese, sausages from Poland and Germany and Spain, slabs of ahi tuna and homemade Ukrainian pyrogies. Even the least ambitious of my local liquor stores can load me up with a six-pack from the Czech town where Pilsner was born. In one strip mall, I can find everything I need to make authentic tacos de cecina and, in another, the fixings for the super-savoury aloo chaat I fell in love with on the streets of Delhi. And all of this without mentioning the culinary globe-trotting that awaits me if I'm willing to spring for a restaurant meal. Like the resident of any good-sized North American city, I can eat my way around the world without even needing to refill my car's gas tank.

What I can't get, however, is a mangosteen. I should qualify that: I can't get a real mangosteen. I have seen the ambrosial orbs on these shores once or twice, and I've noticed that one nearby greengrocery has started stocking mangosteensóturns out its proprietor is a fellow addict. But I'm not that tempted by themónot only because he hawks them for $7.99 a pound (a full dollar more than a pound of T-bone steak) but also because I know better than to think that the heavenly fruit I bought for a dime on the streets of Kuala Lumpur could be had at any price on this side of the Pacific. I once made the mistake of paying ten dollars for a handful of mangosteens from a market on Spadina Avenue in Toronto, only to find that the delicate fruit inside was hopelessly spoiled, retaining little of the light, fleshy texture of the real deal and just enough of the mangosteen's inimitable flavour to bring the true taste maddeningly close without actually supplying a fix.

The mangosteen is not some over-engineered supermarket banana. It's not a Tropicana Twister ingredient or a Jelly Belly flavour. It's a temperamental mistress and a genuine delicacy; a thing available only in its place of origin and too distinctive to be simulated. To prosper, the mangosteen tree needs extremely high humidity and lots of heavy rainfallóthe climate of Southeast Asia, in other wordsóand it can take fifteen years to start yielding mature fruit. And even then, it doesn't always produce a flawless crop; buy a kilo of mangosteens in Kuala Lumpur, and half of them may be as spoiled as those you'd find in Toronto. The fruit doesn't ripen after picking, cannot travel, won't tolerate refrigeration and stridently refuses to make itself amenable to large-scale production. Mangosteens are treasures, unique and fragile and beholden only to their own notions of utility.

There is a legend about the mangosteen's delicate nature that speaks volumes about its steadfast resistance to the will of humanity. Queen Victoria heard of this delectable fruit being grown in one of her most distant coloniesóthe first Europeans in the region had variously dubbed it "Ambrosia of the Gods" and "Queen of Fruits"óand promptly offered a knighthood to any of her subjects who could bring her a mangosteen intact. The knighthood remained unclaimed to her dying day. There is another version of this story in which she tries one and declares it her favourite fruit, but I prefer the version in which the queen of the world's most expansive empire slips this mortal coil having never tasted a mangosteen. That would be one thing I've got on Queen Victoria and one fact that's remained unaltered from her age to mine: I bet you still can't get a decent mangosteen in London for love or money.

Unwilling to bend beneath Victoria's regal sceptre, impervious to the best practices of Del Monte and Dole, stubbornly insistent on taking its own sweet time, the mangosteen is a juicy little bundle of anomalies, an avatar of nature's intrinsic wisdom and a monument to the realities of geography. It's a kind of blessing that I had to wait five years: a poignant reminder that convenience is not an absolute good, and that there can be as much joy in yearning as there is in indulgence.

My wife and I stayed with friends on our visit to Malaysia last fall. On the night we arrived, they took us to their favourite crab restaurant, and I resigned myself to waiting one additional day to renew my love affair with the mangosteen. But as we approached the restaurant, I spied a table next to a minivan on the far side of the parking lot that was positively overflowing with mangosteens. With childlike glee I raced over to buy a bag. I inhaled two of them standing at the cart, and I ate a half-dozen more as we waited for our crabsósavouring them now, marvelling at the way the initial burst of sweetness would give way to a second wave of more complex flavours. I ate a kilo a day for the rest of the week.

As I once again bid mangosteens farewell after a week of over-
indulgence, I couldn't help but feel that it was better to miss them. Better to wonder when I'd get back to Malaysia. Better to wait, to be unsure if I'd ever have another. Better to have embraced them with my whole heart for a short time than to take them for granted.