Fruits and vegetables such as iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, pears, and yams are stocked along the aisles in many American supermarket, but even this wide selection of produce is just a tiny fraction of what Mother Nature offers to the world. One such region of fruits and vegetables that is gaining popularity in the United States is the continent of Asia. Some of these may cause some Westerners to raise an eyebrow because of the way they appear, taste, or smell. Since the latest research from the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health suggests that people should eat seven or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day, Americans should take a little Asian adventure with friends and family to try these “new” fruits and vegetables that may tingle their taste buds and brain.
Durian: Better than smelly cheese
Almost all Asians know about this fruit, which smells like old underwear. Durians, which look like pale yellow, spiky coconuts, are related to okra and hibiscus, yet they exhume a strong pungent smell that either makes people retch or salivate. Their fleshy interior resembles custard, which is rich in vitamin C, potassium, and most B-vitamins. Like coconuts and avocados, durians have a high fat content, but they lack saturated fats and cholesterol. Among the 30 known species of durian that grow in Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia, only nine of these fruits are edible for humans. Interestingly, durians have high levels of tryptophan, an essential amino acid that the body metabolizes into melatonin and serotonin, which are important for inducing sleep and maintaining normal sleep cycles. The only way to appreciate and get the nutritious benefits is to get over the odor.
Ong choy: Chinese “spinach”
Ong choy (derived from Cantonese ) refers to a semi-aquatic, tropical vegetable that is eaten in almost all Asian countries. This green leafy vegetable has a hollow stem with wide, triangular leaves that have a slightly sweet flavor like spinach. In most cuisines, such as Thai, southern Chinese, and Vietnamese, ong choy is often stir-fried with garlic, spicy red peppers, and tofu. The entire vegetable, leaves and stalks, is cooked and eaten together. Ong choy lovers would rejoice to know that this vegetable is loaded with flavonoids, which are cancer-fighting substances that reside mostly in the stem, according to Taiwanese research in 2004 that was published in Botanical Bulletin of Academia Sinica.
Lychee: Sweet like candy
Lychees are well-known fruits that one may often see in Chinatowns and some American markets. Natives of Taiwan and southern China in the Fukien and Guangdong provinces, lychees resemble a pale strawberry with soft, tiny, spike-like protrusions all over a thin layer of skin. A soft, pulpy flesh lies beneath the skin which encloses a smooth, dark brown seed. Like most fruits, lychees are rich in vitamins and antioxidants. One particular antioxidant is oligonol, which is abundant in this fruit. A 2012 study at the University of Connecticut Health Center showed that oligonol could be beneficial to heart and kidney health in rats. Thus, for humans, some lychee consumption could help maintain or improve cardiovascular and renal health.
Gourd: Nature’s “wine bottle”
The bottle gourd is actually a fruit, but in most Asian cultures, it is cooked and prepared like a vegetable, just like those in the squash family. The parent plant that buds the gourd is a vine called calabash that grows primarily in Africa, Asia and parts of Europe. Even though gourds are sometimes a common sight in Asian markets, the fruits originated from Africa and were brought to Asia through human migration about 6,000 to 7,000 years ago, according to a 2005 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Fresh gourds are full of folate, a nutrient that is essential to reduce the risk of neural defects during fetal development early in a woman’s pregnancy. Like nearly all fruits and vegetables, they are rich in vitamin C, most B-vitamins, and major minerals like calcium, magnesium, and zinc. The tender leaves and tendrils of the gourds are also edible and contain higher amounts of these nutrients than the fruit.
Asian fruits and vegetables are just a small sample among thousands of international produce for Americans and other Westerners to try. Eating and learning to prepare different types of foods outside of the typical diet can enrich the cooking and dining experience while offering the opportunity of learning something new about a different culture and history.
By Nick Ng