Just when you think you've seen it all ...
Dave and I are finishing up our tenth year in Asia and we're still in the 'discovery' stage. Our newness is brought home to us everytime we hit a food market, be it here at home in Kuala Lumpur or on our travels around the region. No matter the locality, no matter the time of year, we're almost always guaranteed to stumble upon something - fruit, vegetable, ingredient, prepared food - we've never seen before.
We found this smooth-skinned, heavy fruit on our first morning in Chiang Mai, at Myang Mai morning market. Two vendors, each with a single basket of fruit, told us it grows wild on Doi Ang Khang (aka Thailand's 'Little Switzerland' and home to one of the King's Royal Agricultural Projects). Called dien taw, the fruit was fetching the exceedingly high price of 60 baht a kilo (about 75 US cents a pound).
As Dave took photographs Thais wandered up to examine the fruit. Not a one had seen it before.
'So sweet', the vendors assured us. 'Eat it when it's very, very soft'. We bought a couple, took them back to our room, placed them on the dining table, and forgot about them.
Four days later, as we were readying to leave Chiang Mai for Nan province, I remembered the dien taw. 'Don't forget to pack the weird fruit!' I called over to Dave (who usually does most of our packing).
And four more days later, as we were preparing to drive north from Nan: 'Be sure to grab the weird fruit!' Which, more than a week after we'd bought it, was still rock-hard.
The weird fruit accompanied us north and then west, to Fang and Tha Thon and Ang Khang, and then back down to Chiang Mai. Three days later we - and the weird fruit - were back where we'd started, in Chiang Mai. And finally, it was starting to soften.
The next morning we headed back to Myang Mai market. There were dien taw - baskets and baskets of them - everywhere. Not just at Myang Mai but at Warorot market as well, nestled next to avocadoes and surrounded by plastic-wrapped styrofoam trays of red globe grapes and peeled pomelo. We'd apparently hit the height of dien taw season, for the price had dropped to 20 baht a kilo.
Two days later our 60 baht-a-kilo dien taw was 'very, very' soft and ready to eat. I cut it in half to find two burnished brown seeds and smooth, starchy golden flesh. Dien taw's texture is a cross between that of a rich, dense Haas avocado and cooked butternut squash, and its flavor is quite like the latter. The flesh is a bit dry and exceedingly sweet, but weird, not at all what I think of as 'fruit-like'. I'd be more likely to eat dien taw hot and mashed, mixed with butter and sprinkled with salt and pepper, than out of hand.
Update: Mystery solved, thanks to vigilant EatingAsia reader Bobbie (see comments section), who directed us to this picture of the weird fruit on the tree. The fruit is a lucuma, native to the Andes mountains of Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, where it is eaten out of hand or made into ice cream. This site describes the lucuma as having thin skin and 'dry and starchy orange-yellow flesh' - a description that fits the weird fruit to a 'T' - and notes that in Peru and Chile, where the most lucumas are grown, only a small percentage reach the market in the raw state. Most are dehydrated and ground to a powder that is used to make ice cream and other milk products. South American lucuma are in season January to April. The question is, how - and when - did the fruit make its way from the Andes to the mountains of northwestern Thailand?