Sure, it might be Thailand’s show-stopping curries, stir-fries and salads that get most of the glory, but the county also has countless varieties of delicious, exotic and healthy fruits that we practically live for.
Some are well known, others much less so – whether you enjoy them in a fruit salad, blend them into a shake or smoothie, stir them into a savoury dish, or just enjoy them as nature intended, these are some of our favourite Thai fruits.
The so-called King of Fruits, the durian has a big reputation – and not always for great reasons. It’s banned on air-conditioned public transport both in Thailand and elsewhere – and your hotel probably won’t be too impressed if you take some back with you, either – since that spiky exterior guards meaty flesh that’s seriously stinky. If you can bring yourself to have a taste, you might join its legion of fans – or you might not, since the durian’s flavour is just as divisive as its smell.
Durian is commonly sold by weight on the streets of Bangkok and elsewhere around Thailand – tell the vendor whether you want yours super-ripe or with a little bit of bite, and he or she will crack open a fruit for you to take a look at, then remove the flesh for you to dig into there and then or back home.
You can also enjoy it in dessert form as a variant to the popular mango and sticky rice, and – at spots including our favourite Nuttaporn, in a quaint square in Bangkok’s old town, where it’s only sold during durian season when the fruit is fresh and at its best – it makes for a deliciously meaty ice cream.
Thai mangoes are perhaps most famous for their part in the enormously popular dessert of mango and sticky rice, where they’re combined with rich coconut milk. Along with other fruits, mangoes are also a common ingredient in the sweet, inexpensive shakes and smoothies that are blended up at street stalls in Bangkok and all over Thailand.
That’s just the ripe mango, though. Crisp, unripe green mangoes – in both sour and non-sour varieties – are commonly enjoyed sliced up and dipped in a fiery concoction of dried chilli and sugar, or perhaps with one of a variety of chilli-based dips (known as nam prik) containing anything from shrimp paste (kapi) to rotten fish (pla rah) and ‘pimp’ water beetles (maengda). In our experience, the latter has an apple-like flavour!
Rambutans are among our favourites – once you pop the hairy, red-and-green shells with either your thumbnail or a knife, you’re rewarded with sweet, juicy, lychee-like flesh on the inside, with a small stone at the centre.
As well as being eaten as they are, rambutans are fairly commonly added to grilled duck red curry – this dish more traditionally calls for pineapple chunks, but whole or halved deseeded rambutans are a lovely alternative, while grapes and lychees can also be used.
Known as the queen of fruits to accompany durian, mangosteens have sweet and tangy, white fragmented flesh inside deep purple shells – the inside of which can stain your clothes if you’re not careful! Here’s a little-known piece of mangosteen trivia: as if the fruits were created with their own labels ready for the supermarket shelves, a quick look at the number of petals on the underside of a mangosteen’s exterior will tell you how many segments of flesh are hidden away inside. Nature works its incredible magic once again!
There’s little quite as refreshing as biting into a hunk of hydrating fresh watermelon. As an added twist, Thai watermelons come in two colours! Red watermelons are the most common, like those usually exported overseas, but if you look closely you might just come across a different variety, with the same exterior but beautiful bright yellow flesh inside – entirely naturally!
Like mangoes, watermelons are another especially common ingredient in fresh fruit shakes and smoothies, but they’re just as delicious enjoyed as they come, sliced into pieces and dipped into sugar and perhaps dried chilli.
Though available in Bangkok, passion fruits are far less commonly seen here than they are in northern Thai cities like Chiang Mai, where the fruit is grown with the help of the cooler climate, particularly at higher altitudes. These brown, golf-ball-sized fruits are filled with bright yellow-orange flesh and juice that’s sweet but also overpoweringly tangy and sour – the edible seeds add a pleasant crunchy texture, and the whole experience of eating a truly fresh passion fruit is incomparable to the flavours of even the best quality bottled juice.
Another Thai to come in two different colour varieties, dragon fruits are a similar size to the average mango and have a bright red-pink exterior with green shoots. Inside, Thai mangosteens most commonly have white-grey flesh, but a less common variety has more striking red-pink flesh.
In both types, the flesh is dotted with crunchy black seeds, which are edible. This flesh is somewhat sweet, arguably relatively bland, yet still delicious – as well as being eaten as-is, it’s commonly juiced or added in chunks to shakes and smoothies.
Pineapple is yet another popular, easy-to-prepare and portable Thai fruit that’s commonly sold ready-to-eat in bags by street vendors in Bangkok and elsewhere in the country. Whole fruits are available, too – they’re most widely grown in the upper southern part of Thailand, and are sold both at markets and from pick-up trucks piled high with fruits and parked up at the side of the road. Smaller, extra-sweet fruits are a particular speciality.
Yet again, pineapples are a popular smoothie and shake ingredient, but they’re also eaten as they are – either plain or dipped into sugar and dried chilli. And they are thrown into dishes like pineapple fried rice and grilled duck red curry, where the zingy acidity of the pineapple cuts through the fat in the meat to balance the dish’s flavour.
Who could forget the humble coconut? Grown en masse in southern Thailand, including on the coconut island of Koh Samui, these vitality-boosting beauties have become renowned the world over for their healthy credentials. Rich coconut milk – produced by pressing the flesh through a fine mesh – has long been used in Thai curries, and the likes of coconut oil and coconut butter are increasingly popular as healthier alternatives to conventional cooking fats.
Coconut flesh is also often thrown into fruit smoothies, but perhaps the best way to enjoy a coconut is simply to crack the top with a mallet, dip in a straw, and soak up that delicious, thirst-quenching coconut water. There’s nothing in the world like it – just don’t forget to use a spoon to tuck into the meaty flesh afterwards, too!
Which are your favourite Thai fruits? Let us know in the comments!
Photos by lynhdan; kurisuuu; Connie Ma; Michael Coghlan; John Walker; Maya83; THOR; Irene2005; LWYang; Jeffery Wong