MY Singaporean friend recently showed me a picture of a grape-like fruit which he found in Kuala Terengganu when he was there last year.
He wanted to know what it was called. He would be going there again this month and would like to buy some to take home. I told him that locals called it buah keranji. I said he could probably get it at the wet market, but with the devastation caused by the recent floods, I said, his chances were slim.
The buah keranji is almost black in colour, just slightly smaller than a grape. It has a soft shell that encases a velvety red-orange flesh. Buah keranji has a stone-hard seed, much like tamarind’s, which is why it is also known as velvety tamarind.
Buah keranji can be quite addictive with its sweet-sour taste. My elders used to tell us that one should not eat too much of this fruit because it is thought to be very heaty and could cause nose bleeds.
In the old days, buah keranji were sold by heaps at wet markets in towns in the East Coast. It must have been a very common fruit those days for it to be immortalised in an old Malay pantun (or poem) that goes like this:
Sorong papan, tarik papan; buah keranji dalam perahu
Suruh makan, dia makan; suruh mengaji dia tak mahu
The poem is often cited by elders in the old days to chide children who were lazy to go to school.
I have yet to see buah keranji being sold in bigger towns including Kuala Lumpur except during cultural and food promotions by the Kelantan or Terengganu state governments.
As a matter of fact, there are many types of fruits that I remember seeing when growing up that are rarely found in markets these days. I am beginning to think that most of these fruit species have gone extinct.
Last year, while driving to Tampin down south, I found a fruit stall selling buah tampoi. At glance I thought it was buah sentul, but a U-turn to confirm it proved me wrong.
As penalty, I bought a kilo for the family to try out. My children had never seen the fruit before and my wife had not seen it since she was a child.
Buah tampoi is yellow in colour with a very thick velvety skin, similar to that of buah sentul, another fruit I rarely find nowadays. The flesh is grouped in cloves.
There are two types, I was told – the white and yellow-fleshed ones. The former is sour and thus less popular, but the yellow ones command good prices because they are sweet.
The lady who sold it to us said that the fruits are getting rarer. She added that soon she might not be selling any as the land on which her trees stood would be leased to a company to build a factory on.
Another fast disappearing fruit — or nut if you prefer — is the buoh sakok or so it is known in my home state of Terengganu in the local lingo. Those days, the buah sakok trees could be seen almost anywhere, growing wild along roads and hillsides.
Buoh sakok, or belinjau as it is better known, looks like coffee bean. The fruits form small bunches at the end of the branch.
They are dark green in colour, but will turn yellow and finally bright red when ripe, before dropping off and forming a carpet of red under the trees. As a kid, I used to collect the fallen fruits in Jalan Batas Baharu on the outskirts of Kuala Terengganu town.
You had to peel off the pulpy skin to get at the nut which is encased in a shell. Buah sakok were usually fried in dry sand and eaten as snacks when groundnuts and melon seeds were expensive.
If there was bumper harvest, the belinjau nuts were pounded flat and dried in the sun to make crackers to be served as side dishes during meals and eaten with dips just like keropok.
The flesh of the belinjau is slightly bitter to the taste. A food expert said this was due to phtyochemicals in the nut, one of which is a powerful antioxidant called resveratrol, sought after for its health benefits.
In Indonesia, the crackers, which are known as emping belinjo, are still very popular. Traders tell me that the belinjau crackers you find at pasar malam and highway shops here come from Indonesia.
Another common fruit not often seen in cities is the binjai, also known as white mango by some people. It has a brown skin and is usually sour. My wife uses it in sambal belacan or in tempoyak. The Hokkiens call it “bull’s testicles” from the appearance of the fruits, paired two to a stalk.
Like the keranji and belinjau, the local buah salak (or snakeskin fruit) is also becoming as rare as our traditional kampung houses.
If you are lucky to come across some of buah salak at the market, chances are that they are from our neighbours, including Thailand. To look for those grown on home soil, head for the hills — you just might get lucky.
I wonder if any effort is being taken to preserve the botanical heritage — not just herbs, spices and medicinal plants, but also the traditional fruits.
I am really hoping, maybe one day, a living agricultural museum can be set up, where all traditional fruit trees are planted and maintained for our younger generation to appreciate, rather than learn about them from books.