Sunday, June 16, 2024
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Brunei Town

Bounty of the tropics

I have a confession: I, am a total fruit fiend!

Growing up under the lush canopies of fruit trees at my grandparents’ home, fruits were a daily delight. Whether it was a small bunch of bananas, a handful of longans, or a massive jackfruit, their table was always adorned with seasonal bounty.   

As I’ve grown, with my grandparents having passed on and the orchards tended to less, a sense of nostalgia bubbles up during the fruit season. I find myself eager for a fruit hunt, trying to recreate those childhood days of a mountain of fruits on the dining table.

Beyond the tropical feast, the fruit season is also when the most eclectic kinds show themselves. Forget the usual suspects of durian and rambutan; some of these fruits you might have never seen before, let alone heard of.

Today, we’re exploring the matoa, a lesser-known gem that’s wrapped in mystery and adorned with many names. Its scientific name is pometia pinnata, and it belongs to the soapberry family, which includes more familiar fruits like lychees.

Matoa is akin to a lychee in its sweet, juicy interior, but it sports a tougher, more leathery skin that ranges in colour from green to deep burgundy as it ripens. Keep this in mind, as the fruit that bears the name matoa comes in various shapes and shades. Locally, it’s often called mentua, but its other common names include kasai, taun, island lychee, Pacific lychee, and Fijian longan.

In Brunei, some even refer to it as Brazilian longan, though it’s still up for debate whether this is merely another name for matoa or an entirely different fruit.

The mentua fever currently gripping me actually began a few months ago, quite amusingly, when a relative who had recently moved homes brought over a basket of fruit. They were round, dark, almost purple and clustered like grapes.

The rounded ‘mentua’. PHOTO: IZAH AZAHARI
Some says ‘mentua’ embodies a blend of rambutan, longan, and durian flavours. PHOTO: IZAH AZAHARI

This relative had moved into a home with a mature and abundant fruit tree. Unfamiliar with the fruit, he couldn’t identify it before giving us a taste.

Even for those of us familiar with it, we were quite intrigued. Typically oval, the mentua that was brought over was perfectly round, a novelty that extended to its taste as well.

And so, the hunt began. Until now, I had believed there was only one type of mentua. But this fruit season felt different. The quest was not just to find any mentua but to discover the different kinds available here in the Sultanate.

In the span of a week, I found myself exploring three of the Sultanate’s most renowned open-air markets: Jerudong, the night market in Gadong, and the bustling Kianggeh market in the capital.

What began as a simple fruit hunt quickly turned into a fascinating journey into the world of mentua and its myriad varieties. I was genuinely taken aback by the sheer diversity I encountered.

From the common green to burgundy oval-shaped mentua, whose fruits can vary from the size of a regular longan to an actual apple, to the rounded ebony mentua, and to the tan and brownish oval-shaped mentua I found at a market labelled as longan brazil.

Every vendor who sold the fruit and with whom I struck up a conversation mentioned how the fruit is seldom sold despite alleged having no season.

Fruit vendor Hajah Masni binti Haji Daud at the Gadong Night Market, explained that the mentua is not a new fruit but has, in fact, been growing on Bruneian soil since the 1980s to the 1990s.

She shared how the movement of agricultural crops was freer back then, and most agriculturists had easily obtained non-native fruit trees that are well adapted to our tropical climates.

Hajah Masni binti Haji Daud with ‘mentua’ for sale at the Gadong Night Market. PHOTO: WARDI WASIL

Among these fruits are even coffee and cocoa, non-native fruits that you can sometimes find growing in the Sultanate.

“That is why you are starting to see the fruit nowadays in markets and sometimes even supermarkets. Back then, a lot of locals had brought in the saplings, and I guess what we are seeing now are those trees that have finally matured and bore fruit,” said the 72-year-old.

The mentua is renowned for its distinctive flavour profile, often referred to as buah tiga rasa or “fruit of three flavours” in some regions. It is said to embody a blend of rambutan, longan, and durian flavours.

From the varieties I’ve tasted, each seems to offer different levels of all three.

While one variety may have a stronger longan taste, another might have a more pronounced durian aroma and texture. It’s truly a grab bag of tastes and sensations.

Hajah Masni, with over 30 years of experience as a vendor, shared that the mentua tends to sell out quickly whenever it is available due to its novelty. Its creamy, durian-like taste is particularly popular among consumers.

So dear readers, as the fruit season approaches, consider inquiring about the mentua fruit at your local markets. Remember, appearances can be deceiving, and beneath its tough exterior lies a tropical gem worthy of savouring. – WARDI WASIL