There are many things I love about living in this part of the world: that I can buy coconut grated to order. That Dave and I can easily and quickly hop from country to country and culture to culture. That, as each year passes, it becomes ever more obvious that no matter how much I learn about this region and its foods I'll never, ever know it all.
Salak, or snakefruit, are wildly popular in Malaysia and Thailand. I'd seen them displayed for sale in bundles but never knew that that's how they grow, bunched together around a single stem. Nor did I know they're the fruit of a type of palm tree (for some reason I pictured them hanging from tree branches) and that they grow nestled in fronds covered with dangerously sharp spines. Harvesting salak is no easy task.
In the hills of northern Bali male and female salak trees are planted side-by-side to delineate agricultural property boundaries. Dave took these photos in a small village a terrifying fifteen-minute motorbike ride from the nearest road, soon after the trees' owner had graciously wrestled a couple of bunches free for us to try.
I learned something else: all salak are not created equal.
Named for their tough scaly skin, snakefruit have long sat low on my list of beloved Asian tropical fruits. I've eaten them in Thailand, Malaysia, on Sumatra (Indonesia), and in the Philippines, and have always found them off-puttingly pungent, their flesh dry, juiceless, oddly chewy, and more likely than not to leave the inside of my mouth feeling as if it's covered with fuzz. In short, an utter waste of jaw power.
Balinese salak are a whole other animal, their flesh moist if not quite juicy, giving if not exactly tender. What's more, they're far from stinky, with a flavor that's a pleasant tropical punch-y mix of banana, pineapple, and the tiniest hint of mango. I may have shunned salak in the past but on Bali I couldn't get enough of them.
Another thing I've learned in Southeast Asia: if at first you're not convinced, taste taste again. Malaysian durian converted me to the King of Fruits (native Balinese durian, by the way, give the Malaysian varieties a real run for their money). And Balinese salak did the same for the ugly snakefruit.