January 23, 2022

CHASING CARIBBEAN FRUITS

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Dave Martins

 

A Guyanese friend of mine, Alex Neptune, recently sent me a photo of the Caribbean fruits and vegetables he grows in his backyard in New York; he remarked on the number of fruits we have in the region, and that we appear to have lost some.  Actually most of the fruits I remember chasing as a youngster in Guyana are still around; the more popular ones (paw paw, guava, mango, watermelon, banana, etc) are in your face everywhere, but the more exotic ones are still about.

Golden apple (pomme cythere in Trinidad; June plum in Jamaica) is abundant, as is starapple (eat too many and it’s laxative time) – Trinis know it as caimit.  In West Indian fashion, we have two fruits in Guyana called cashew: one with the little cashew nut on top, and our other cashew is that delicious purple fruit with the snow-white interior – it’s pomerac in Trinidad; Jamaica apple in Jamaica) – but the proper name is Malay apple.  (With its multi-lingual background, Trinidad has many things named differently from most Caribbean countries.)

When I was growing up, a kids’ favourite was whitey (in Trinidad, padoo) so named for the snow-white flesh around the single black seed, and it still shows up in the markets. When I lived in Grand Cayman I had three whitey trees in my yard – the only ones in the island; I had smuggled in seeds from Guyana – and when I was cutting the grass, I would ride under the trees, and enjoy a few fruits in the shade. Whitey grows fast and bears a lot, and youngsters love it, but a Jamaican friend told me, “Dat ah bird food, sah.”

Guinep is in season right now – called chenette or even ackee in other places – and is still a big favourite in Guyana with walkabout vendors and at the roadside, but always ask for a sample before you buy; some guineps are so sour they can make your mouth pucker up like a fish out of water.  Guinep, by the way, is family to lichee, but the latter needs a cooler climate to bear (as in the mountainous part of Jamaica). Defying all the experts in Cayman, including Mr. Otto, I planted one, but they were right. The tree grew beautifully but never produced a single fruit; not even a flower.  I cut it down and planted a mango in the spot.

Our various apple fruits – custard apple, sugar apple, monkey apple, baby apple (that last one is very tiny fruit that grows on a hedge) – still grow in the countryside. As an aside, there is a new plant called atemoya, which is a man-made graft of sugar apple (also called sweet sop) and cherimoya. Created in Florida, it produces a very large sugar apple, with very few seeds – unlike standard sugar apple – and is great eating.  Growing wild all over the Eastern Caribbean is the children’s favourite dungs or dunks, that golden yellow fruit on a short, thorn-infested tree; Jamaicans label it coolie plum. Psidium, also known for its long fierce thorns, was a special treat for us growing up – you would roll the ripe ones around in your palm to soften them and then pop the fruit in your mouth. I have no recollection of passion fruit whatsoever as a kid, but it’s world-famous these days as is pomegranate, which we used to ignore because it’s mostly seed; pomegranate is now the rage in North America for the wonderful nutrients it contains – who knew, eh?

Soursop is abundant (makes a memorable ice cream), as is carambola, which we call five-finger, also known as star fruit, but this is another in that taste-before-you-buy category; some varieties of carambola can rival lime for sourness. In Guyana we still have that bright yellow plum (sometimes called hog plum) that makes a great picture piled high in the market, but for some reason the sweeter purple variety, known as governor plum in the region, is not found here, which is a pity – it’s delicious and makes a lovely drink.

A true oddity is the aptly named stinking toe. Apart from the thick hard shell that you need a hammer to break, stinking toe is unique for its almost dusty fruit that dries up the saliva in your mouth like a sponge. Eating stinking toe is an exercise in oral gymnastics, and the fruit does smell like “foot cheese”, but this is another hit with youngsters. One big advantage is that you don’t have to climb for it; the fruit conveniently falls when ripe, and the hard shell gives it you undamaged. The smell is a killer, though; it comes through that hard shell; if somebody has stinking toe in the house, you know. In fact, I’m planning to mail one to Alex; it will probably send those sniffer dogs in US Customs running for cover.

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