The checkout counter at the grocery store always gives my confidence a boost. As I watch a puzzled cashier roll my persimmon through his hands or grip my ginger root as though its identity might be squeezed out of it, I feel a petty, but delightful ping of smugness. Aside from their role in the destruction of human sociability, this is why I never use self-checkout. The machines steal my private moment of pretension. I imagine that if it were not for price look-up codes, the entire grocery store system would blowup with bewilderment.
Now, having spent the past three weeks in Singapore, my produce confidence has been reduced to the understanding that I know nothing at all. Despite images of myself in an ill-fitted baseball cap, scanning Chees Nips, it is an exciting place to be – full of mystery and the potential to learn. Singaporean markets are full of exotic fruits and vegetables (exotic from my perspective, but as recognizable as an apple to local shoppers.)
There are dragon fruit, jackfruit, longan, mangosteen, durian, and rambutan, but those are only just a few – the ones I eventually came to recognize. But, even once I was able to identify, I still wasn’t sure how to best use them. I bought a container of the longan, which had become a favorite of mine.
A cousin of the lychee, the longan is sweet and musky. The cherry sized fruit has translucent, white flesh surrounding the most beautiful pit I’ve ever seen. “Longan,” actually means “dragon’s eye,” and for good reason. Shiny and ranging from jet black to deep red, each time I peeled the longan to reveal the glossy center, I felt like a kid, finding my grease-coated plastic prize at the bottom of a Happy Meal…for lack of a more sophisticated analogy.
After a week of keeping myself in constant supply of longan, and even making myself slightly ill from eating so many, I attempted my first application project – a longan pie. I won’t go into the gritty details, but it was one of the uglier experiments to have ever crept from my oven – my parents, having been witness to my formative baking years, will agree that this is quite a feat, indeed. Only one thing was certain – Longan did not want to be treated like a cherry.
Once again, the local eats had challenged my former knowledge and asked me adjust my entire vision of what food should be, how we use it, what it looks like and how it tastes. As cooks – as servants to the ingredients – the craft becomes about how to best showcase the ingredients’ potential, rather than twisting them to showcase our own talents. The less familiar fruits and vegetables exemplify this philosophy, humbling us with our own inexperience.