There are lots of fruits and vegetables here that I’d never eaten in the U.S. Some I’ve grown to love, like sayote, or chayote, chuchu, chow chow, alligator pear, choko, or a variety of other names, depending on where you are. I was able to find it in Brixton Market, where the Sri Lankan vendors referred to it as cho cho, and lemme tell ya – after 11 years of missing it, I was stoked! It quickly became a staple on our shopping list.
Apparently sayote is also available in Louisiana, but then just about every interesting thing I’ve ever eaten from around the world, I’ve later learned has some sort of equivalent in Louisiana. They cheat.
One of my least favorite veggies is also from here: ampalaya. Blech. It’s also called bitter melon or bitter gourd, and that is no accident. The good news is that it’s almost always cooked with egg, which means I’ve got an easy out on having to eat it. Not like some of the other veggies I find not-so-delicious, which are grown here in great quantity, like eggplant (here, talong…aubergine in France and the UK) and okra, a back-yard garden norm as they grow more or less like weeds. But ampalaya takes the icky cake in my opinion. Allegedly very good for you, they can apparently be prepared in such a way as to take the bitterness out of them. Unfortunately no Pinoy would ever do this because, you see, they like the way it tastes like the vegetable equivalent of Bayer’s. And I’ve just not bothered to figure out how it would be done.
There is, as well, a number of root vegetables, all of which I love, in that I’m severely addicted to carbohydrates. Camote, or sweet potatoes, are usually just boiled, peeled, and served as is. They are so creamy and sweet here that you don’t need to add a thing to make them delicious. My best friend made them for us right before we came here by peeling them, slicing them relatively thinly, and then dry pan frying them until they were golden-brown and crispy on the outside, piping hot and mushy on the inside…gorgeous. But here they also eat the pretty purple leaves that grow above ground. It’s called camote tops, and it’s prepared like a warm salad. The leaves are cleaned and then blanched, and then tossed with ginger, vinegar, and a bit of salt. This is the traditional preparation of lots of spinach-like greens, such as kang kong (called tang kongin Cebuano). The English names for this lovely
green vary from the delightful “morning glory,” to the creepy and gross, “swamp cabbage.” I assure you that it is neither creepy nor gross, and has, for me, the perfect texture for a hearty, iron-rich green, in that it’s far sturdier than spinach, so takes longer to cook, but you actually get something to chew. It’s excellent in soups as well!
Still, no vegetable here (and for the record, I use the word vegetable in the culinary sense, since many of the plants I’ve referred to are technically fruits) can compete, in my opinion, with the wonderful, beautiful, strange, succulent, and all-around lovely puso ng saging, literally “heart of banana”. Outside the Philippines it is generally called a banana blossom, which is fine, but I like heart better, because it really does seem to be this giant fleshy heart, complete with all the intricacies of real beating heart. They can be seen growing from the banana trees we pass along the highway, and they are truly a wonder to me, even on the stem:
The most common way I’ve seen puso ng saging prepared is in a “salad,” which here means warm or hot, boiled and broken into little bits, with finely chopped onions and/or garlic, ginger, sometimes chilies, tomatoes, vinegar, coconut milk, and salt and pepper. This is the same preparation for the talong (eggplant) salad, and can be used as the recipe for camote tops or kang kong as well. But the puso ng saging stands apart because of its seriously meat-like texture. The best comparison I can think of is like a mix between bonito fish, which is often used in japanese soups, and minced beef. I realize that sounds gross – I assure you it is anything but! Banana heart can be used to make stir-fries, too, and is loaded with fiber, vitamins A and C, and according to a couple of Indian sites I found it is an excellent reliever of menstrual pains. Indian doctors highly recommend it for pregnant women because it also apparently facilitates lactation. I say, nutrition, nushmition. It’s delicious. Lami. If you ever come across it in your grocery store or local market, and you’ve got a reasonable internet connection (because if you’re anything like me, trying to figure out how to prepare it on your ownwill leave you baffled and near tears), give it a go…you won’t be disappointed.