Writing about fruits is similar to writing about e.g. flowers and/or vegetables. I think one cannot confine oneself to describing the fruit, flower or vegetable and some of the respective botanical aspects alone but should whenever it is possible and/or makes sense also address their origins, their trees or plants, the issue of symbolism and the uses they are put to – from the kitchen to the religious shrine to the pharmacy, as it were – as otherwise not only the reading about them might become a bit boring but also because the picture will remain incomplete. If you do not agree please tell me of what use it would be to merely tell you bananas and coconuts are growing in Burma and that bananas are yellow and bend whereas the kernel of the coconut is round to oval and brown? You see what I mean? I admit this article is a bit longer than my usual ones because I am also using a lot of botanical names (for the botanists amongst you) but it will nevertheless – so I hope – make interesting reading. It will at least – that I am very certain about – be quite instructive. By the way, you will be surprised to read that many flowers and/or fruits you like very much are belonging to families you would have never expected. Would you e.g. have expected that the strawberry is a member of the family ‘Rosaceae’ the flowers of which are known to you a rose? Or did you know that the core of the banana stem and the banana blossom are not only edible but are also very delicious? These things and much more will be revealed in this article.
OK, let us jump at the opportunity and learn more about fruits, in general, while concerning ourselves with the fruits of Burma (since 1989 also called Myanmar), in particular.
Burma is like all tropical and subtropical countries benefited by a climate that allows continuous growing, cultivating and harvesting of fruits both of seasonal and year-round kind. With its abundant moisture and warm to hot temperatures in the lowlands and temperate climate in the mountains it produces the most diverse fruits in high quality and in great quantities.
When speaking of fruits of Burma we must not only classify them into seasonal and year-round kinds but also into almost globally grown and cultivated ones such as e.g. the apple and grape or the strawberry and fruits such as the mango and the papaya or banana that are native to and exclusively growing in tropical and subtropical climates and countries.
In other words, the apple, grape and strawberry are non-tropical/subtropical fruits because they cannot thrive well without longer periods with temperatures about and below 0 degree Celsius/32 degree Fahrenheit, i.e. without frost and without essential environmental conditions such as the appropriate nourishment, soil drainage, proper degree of humidity, right amount of hours of sunshine/day, average temperatures, amount of water, etc. Merely soil, water and sunshine are not sufficient enough for a tree, plant or flower to thrive well.
Trees and plants may grow in environments they are not adapted to – which to become takes without interference through e.g. grafting and/or budding, a long evolutionary process – but cannot unfold their respective qualities to the full. So, do not expect of fruits that are not native to the tropics what you are in terms of size, colour, odour, flavour, sweetness, juiciness, etc. used to in your non-tropical home country where these fruits are native to. Do you have tropical or subtropical fruits such as bananas, mangosteen or papayas growing in North Europe or the north of North America? You see what I mean?
Nevertheless, I will, without spending too much time on them, include certain non-tropic fruits in this article as far as they are cultivated in Burma and will hopefully in a combined effort of nature and men by e.g. crossing of desirable parents or beneficial mutation in standard varieties adapt to the climate here. At the end of this process of the fruits concerned may have been developed new varieties with wonderful characteristics and qualities. Who knows? We cannot force nature to do its job; we can only assist and learn from it. Therefore, do not blame Burma for the fact that these non-tropical fruits are not as good here as in the countries they are native to and do not blame me for admitting that and just telling the truth. Burma cannot help it because it is a matter of nature and I am just being objective.
As for the former (the apple, etc) they are not as good in Burma as in other countries with proper natural environment but that should not pose any problem to foreign visitors to Burma who come e.g. from Europe or North America as they have these fruits in highest quality and abundance in their own countries. After all, these people do certainly not come to Burma in order to eat here those fruits which are cultivated in their home countries, maybe in their own garden. Actually they are not coming just to eat fruits but once being here it would be a shame not to eat them. They would be missing out on something really wonderful. However, as for the latter (the mango, etc.), Burma/Burma has a lot to offer that is truly remarkable. Mind you, we are not speaking of fruits that are available in Burma when speaking of the ‘Fruits of Burma’. It is true, all kinds of fruits are available in developed countries, even the most exotic, and those fruits that are not available there do simply not exist anywhere else, but tropical and subtropical fruits such as those of Burma might be available in foreign countries but do not grow there.
When speaking of fruits of Burma we are speaking of fruits that are typical of Burma and ripen here on the tree, bush or on the stem and not artificially and at storage facilities as those fruits that are determined for consumption in foreign countries are plucked prematurely in order not to be overripe when ultimately displayed in shops of far-away countries. In other words, fruits are often transported over great distances what even nowadays with our fast means of transportation takes a long time from the tree of the fruit farmer to the shelf of the shop in which they are finally sold. They must arrive at their destination close to or on but not after the peak of their ripeness since fruits decay very rapidly. Therefore they are plucked or picked before they have almost reached this point on the tree. And that makes a great difference in colour, odour and flavour. This is a difference that makes out all that what eating of fruits actually is about: savouriness. And savour you can the fruits of Burma in Burma; they are tree-ripened.
If you have a soft spot for tropical and subtropical fruits, Burma is the place to be because here they grow. From A as in ‘Awza thee’ or custard apple, as it is called in English, to Z as in ‘Zee thee’ or plum, here you get something for every taste even when allowing for the fact that not everyone likes every fruit what may be true especially for the ‘Du win thee’ (durian) and/or ‘Pein gne thee’ (Jackfruit), which are very healthy and much loved by almost all of the locals but not necessarily so by foreigners as at least their pungent smell, if that is the word, needs very much getting used to; if that is possible at all, that is.
But that you get here something for everyone is not all. As for certain fruits that are also growing in other tropical countries, in Burma you get the very best of them.
Now if you do not mind come and accompany me on my trip into the realm of Burma’s flora. Let us take a closer look at the fruits of Burma and in doing so keep the very best, the highlights of the journey, as it were, till the end. This trip is a little bit longer but as I hope both informative and entertaining. Fasten your seatbelts; here we go. The non-tropical fruits cultivated in Burma are e.g. the apple, grape and strawberry.
Those tropical fruits that are native to Burma and those that are not originated in Burma but have over time become part of its native flora are, in the category ‘year-round fruits’, e.g. the banana, papaya, lemon, lime or sweet lime, grapefruit/pomelo, pomegranate, avocado, coconut and fig.
In the category ‘seasonal fruits’ these are in the sequence of their season e.g. the mango and jackfruit, durian and mangosteen, guava, rambutan, lychee, pineapple, custard apple, orange, and water melon.
Let us begin our journey with the apple locally called ‘Pan thee’ that as stated above – though not native to Burma – is cultivated here since British times. As the locally grown quantities were not sufficient to meet the demand in terms of quantity and quality apples were imported and according to those of my friends who ate them they were very delicious. Still, apples are imported from e.g. China but they too are not so good. They are big and look good but have in the way of flavour, sweetness and juiciness not much to offer that is worth writing home about. Besides, they are relatively expensive.
In Burma apples are mainly cultivated in the north-eastern part of the country, in the foothills of the Shan mountains where in the higher regions at about 3510 feet/1070 metres the micro-climate is European-like, thus the temperatures lower than the usually tropical temperatures. But in size, odour, flavour and colour they do not quite meet the quality of those growing in western countries as the locally grown apples are rather tasteless, quite dry and not very sweet either. As for the vitamin contents, too, the level may not be as high as in Europe so that the ‘An-apple-a-day-keeps-the-doctor-away’ method might not work out so well here.
Be that as it may, ‘Pan thee’ is in Burma mainly eaten in the fresh state but can also be served as chief ingredients of deserts such as fruit salads, backed apples, apple pie and apple strudel. They can also be processed into dried apple slices, jelly, pasteurised juice, canned sauce, cider, vinegar and apple brandies. Apple upgrades as complement the flavour of many dishes but can also be an integral and main part of dishes, and is e.g. used as ingredient of pickled white cabbage (sauerkraut), goes very well with all kinds of game, is used as stuffing of goose roast and also makes a tasty meal when stewed and combined with either potato pancake or boiled potato topped with bacon sauce or in combination with fried sausage.
Apples are widely cultivated throughout temperate world regions such as northern Europe and North America and apple trees are best adapted to regions in which the average temperature approaches or is dropping to freezing point and below. Here the apples are best. The exact chilling requirements vary slightly from variety to variety but apple trees can withstand temperatures down to -40 degrees Celsius. Its native home is most probably the region between the Caspian and Black Sea.
The apple fruit develops from a blossom that is of rounded appearance and in its majority white with stripes or tints of rose. Some apple species do, however, bloom with white or red flowers. They wary in size from slightly bigger than a cherry to a grapefruit and have five seed pockets the number of seeds contained in them varying with the variety. Apple trees constitute the genus ‘Malus’ of the family ‘Rosaceae’. About seventy genera of the rose family are cultivated for e.g. food amongst them the apple and believe it or not the strawberry.
Strawberries though they too are not native to Burma are also cultivated here. The strawberry has no local name and is therefore here in Burma also called ‘strawberry’. This fruit that makes up the genus ‘Fragaria’ of the family ‘Rosachilaensis’ is although being smaller than the, e.g. in Europe consumed species developed from ‘Fragaria moschata’ growing galore throughout the cooler months of the year in the ‘Pyin Oo Lwin/Maymyo’ region. Maymyo is located some 68 kilometres/42.5 miles north-east of Mandalay in the foot hills of the Shan mountains.
The local variety is more like ‘Fragaria Vesca’, the forest strawberry, but very sweet when ripe.
Surely, this is good news for all those who cannot do without them for even a shorter time and happen to be here in the right period from January to March, which – by the by – is a time when in northern Europe the local strawberries are not yet on the market.
So, what most likely will immediately spring to the mind of western early post WW II generations visiting Maymyo/Pyin Oo Lwin during the strawberry season is the 1964 Beatles world-hit “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
Strawberries are rich in zinc and vitamin B9 or folic acid, which is a coenzyme needed for forming body protein and haemoglobin (an iron-protein compound in red blood cells) and quercetin that helps to alleviate allergies.
Strawberries are mainly eaten in the fresh state with sugar and cream but are also made into juice, syrup, wine, jam, used as chief ingredient of desserts such as fruit salad, ice-cream and for e.g. strawberry tart and cake.
The grape, local name ‘Tha byet thee’, is another example of a fruit not native to but cultivated in Burma since some three decades. They are cultivated in the area of Meiktila (Mandalay division) but are in size, taste and sweetness definitely inferior to, for instance, European and North American grapes. They are eaten in a fresh state, processed into raisins, and tread and made into wine, which however is more often than not on the rather sweet side. But the influx of foreign specialist during the last years has led to the production of high-quality vines mostly offered in higher class hotels and restaurants.
The banana, locally called ‘Hnget pyaw thee’, is like the papaya, guava and lime one of the year-round tropical fruits. The banana tree and the fruit are cultivated for their versatility. The local name hnget pyaw thee is a combination of ‘hnget’ (originally spelled ‘het’), which means ‘splitting’, ‘pyaw’ what means as much as ‘pulpy’ and ‘thee’, meaning ‘fruit’.
The banana belongs to the family ‘musaceae’ and makes up the genus ‘musa’ one of which is classified as ‘musa paradisiaca’, the other ‘musa textilis’ or ‘Manila hemp’, also ‘abaca’, which is native to the Philippines. The fibres of musa textilis are as its name denotes used for the production of high-quality matting.
The banana family with its two genera and about 40 species and many varieties typically occurs in the tropics and is originated in Southeast Asia. Bananas have sterile flowers and the fruit develops unfertilized so that bananas contain no seeds. The production of new plants is by vegetative means and propagation is from suckers that develop at the bases of old plants. Planted once they multiply without end. The banana tree is omnipresent in Burma although certain varieties prefer certain regions. It is almost impossible to make a step without seeing another banana tree; even in the big cities. They grow everywhere from the flatland to mountains in altitudes of 4.000 feet.
In the tropics the stems are annual. They die after perfecting the fruit and then new stems develop from the buds in the rootstock. Their growth is so rapid that their fruit is usually ripe within 10 months after the offsets are planted. The banana fruit itself ripens within about 6 months as is reflected in the local wisdom: “The bunch of bananas is ripe and fit when the babies learn to sit.”
The stems, which are actually not a stem at all but overlapping leaf bases can grow to a height of 10 to 40 feet/3 to 12 metres with crowns of large leaves of a lengths of up to 10 feet/3 metres. The flowers spring from the centre of the crown and are arranged in whorl-like clusters along the spike. The flowers on the top are male flowers and those at the base female flowers.
The banana fruit varies in lengths from about 4 to 12 inches/10 to 30 centimetres and the average weight of a bunch is about 25 lb/about 11 kg with some of them exceeding 40 lb/18 kg. The edible part of the banana fruit contains on average 75 percent water, 21 percent carbohydrate and about 1 percent each of the fat, protein, fibre and ash. Usually the banana is of yellow colour but there are also green, red and blue varieties, the latter being very rare.
After having worked ourselves through a lot of rather general stuff pertinent to the banana issue we will now come to the part with more local flavour and take a closer look at the ‘Burma banana family’ with some 12 members out of some 25 varieties that are said to exist in Burma.
Our ‘family’ however consists of those varieties that are mainly cultivated. Starting with the smallest one, the first member of this family is ‘musa cavendishii’, the small, sweet and slightly sour Chinese variety with the local name ‘Wet malut’ or ‘Pig’s limbo tree’.
Two other members locally called ‘Thee Hmwey’ or ‘fragrant fruit/banana fruit’ are the golden yellow thin-skinned it and the even when fully ripe thin-skinned green one. They are my favourite and very tasty. To my opinion not one of the European import standard brands comes close to it. The fruit pulp of both is of slightly yellowish-white colour and not too soft.
Since a family to be complete needs a mother we take for it the ‘Nanthabu’ or ‘short and perfumed’. Nanthabu makes a good mother because it is petit, fragrant, soft-skinned, well and round shaped, sweet with firm yet soft texture (like the thee hmwey) and not stringent.
Wet malut’s (the smallest family member) bigger brother is ‘Hpee gyann’ or ‘coarse hand’, a name that indicates that the fruit has here and there grainy excrescences. Unlike other varieties, which are not very tolerant to pressure this one can take a biff as it is very thick-skinned. The fruit is very thick and angular in shape. Its pulp is a bit sour and grainy and has like its brother ‘Hnget pyaw’ or ‘blue banana’ the skin of which sheens silvery-grey medicinal properties as it is conducive to digestion and bowl movement.
The father of the ‘Burma banana family’ is ‘Byat pyeih’ or ‘tray full’. Byat pyeih is huge and therefore nicknamed by locals ‘Hsin an’ what means ‘elephant tooth’. The fruit is bulky and its bunch is very heavy due to the giant size of bananas of this variety. You eat a maximum of four of them and you have definitely had your fill. The edible part of the fruit is compared to other varieties rather tasteless and has quite a coarse texture but is none the less very well edible. I like it.
The eldest son and pride of the family is ‘Shwe nga pyaw’ (‘Shweyni’) or the variety ‘Rubra’ of ‘Musa sapientum’. This variety is also known as golden or red banana. In its early stage it is of greenish-brown colour but as it matures it takes on a more and more shimmering red and in places reddish-golden/yellow colour. The fruit is almost as bulky and huge as byat pyeih and its pulp is slightly mealy, scented. It has a slight after-taste of a kind which may not be to everyone’s taste and is more on the yellow side yellowish-white. Shwe nga pyaw is the favourite banana for ceremonial offerings and comparatively expensive.
Two other family members are from Rakhine State on Burma’s west coast at the Gulf of Bengal. These are locally called ‘Rakhine nga pyaw’ or ‘Rakhine banana’ and ‘Nga pyaw chin’ or ‘Sour banana’. Rakhine nga pyaw is called by the Arakanese (Rakhine nationals) ‘Kalar nga pyaw’ or ‘Indian banana’. The fruit has a round body with a yellow and thin skin. The pulp is soft, yellowish-white and has a very pleasant, sweet taste what makes it much sought after. Nga pyaw gyin (sour banana) is as the name implies slightly more stringent and smaller in size than Rakhine nga pyaw yet quite tasty.
The next – also a fragrant type – is ‘Musa sapientum var. champa’, locally called ‘Htawbhat nga pyaw’ or ‘butter banana’ what gives already the information that the pulp of this variety is of creamy texture. The taste is pleasantly sweet, slightly fragrant and its skin is thin and yellow. Personally, I find the pulp a bit too soft but the taste is good.
The last member of our ‘Burma banana family’ is locally called ‘Thange zar’ or ‘Children food’. Its pulp is somewhat grainy, sweet and slightly stringent. In size the fruit is rather small and its skin is yellow.
The banana fruit is generally eaten in a fresh state either as part of a meal or in between. However, it is also served as chief ingredients of various cakes, deep fried with a coat of rice flour batter, as pancake filling or coated in a layer of chocolate on a stick. It is also preserved into crispy, dried slices (banana chips) with and without honey.
But it is not only the banana fruit that is eaten. Its flower and the core of the stem too are very delicious. The red flower petals of the bud at the apex of the spike give a very tasty salad.
Slices of the core of the banana tree stem are indispensable part of Burma’s very popular breakfast dish ‘Mohinga’, which is a thick, peppery, yellow fish soup/gravy made of fish, banana stem, ginger, garlic, lemon grass, oil, chilli powder and turmeric that is eaten with rice-noodles. It is very, very tasty.
Finally, the banana bud is also an architectural design motif, locally called ‘Hnget pyaw bu’ and plays as such an important role in Buddhist architecture. The banana bud is to be seen on tired roofs of pagodas, monasteries and in the spires of stupas.
The next year-round fruits in Burma are ‘citrus fruits’, namely the lemon, lime and the grapefruit/pomelo.
Citrus is the common name for several related evergreen trees and shrubs of the rue family and generally for the fruits they produce. This includes the citron, grapefruit, shaddock/pomelo, lemon, lime, orange, tangerine and bergamot (a pear-shaped orange). Citrus are native to Southeast Asia, belong to the family ‘Rutaceae’ and constitute the genus ‘Citrus’.
The lemon, also of the category ‘year-round’, locally called ‘Than ma yo thee’ develops from blossoms with five petals that are on the upper surface white and on the lower surface pinkish. The trees are cultivated throughout the tropical and subtropical regions and are small and thorny. They grow to about 10 to 20 feet/3 to 6 metres height and are sparsely covered by foliage.
The lemon fruit is of pale yellow colour, elliptically shaped and technically a berry. Its pulp consists of 8 to 10 segments, is of light-yellow colour and contains small, pointed, white seeds. The peel surrounding the fruit contains ‘oil of lemon’, which is used in the manufacturing of perfumes and lemon flavouring. The fruit is picked six to ten times yearly and a mature lemon tree may produce 1.000 to 2.000 fruits in this period.
Usually, the fruit is because of its stringency not eaten but cultivated for its juice that is refreshing and has medicinal properties and flavour. Lemon juice and/or syrup is used widely as a constituent of beverages, as a drink, salad dressing and as flavouring. The pulp of the lemon is used to making concentrated lemon juice that is used medicinal for its high vitamin C and ascorbic acid content.
In Burma, lemon juice is much favoured as present for elderly family members around the full moon day of Thadingyut that falls into September/October. Lemon is an antiseptic and due to its vitamin contents ant scorbutic, which are properties that are conducive to maintaining teeth and bones, the cleansing of body impurities and the prevention of diseases. Lemon is classified as ‘Citris limon’.
Lime is native to Southeast Asia and cultivated chiefly in tropical regions. Its local name is ‘Tham ya thee’ and its fruit develops from white flowers, which have five petals. It is spherical to oval in shape with a thick, yellow-greed rind. The pulpy flesh of the segments is acid, juicy and of yellowish-green colour. The lime tree grows to a height of approx. 15 feet/4.6 metres. Lime juice contains small quantities of vitamin C. Lime is classified as ‘Citrus aurantifolia’ and the Perrine lemon as ‘Citrus limon aurantifolia’.
Now we have reached the end of this leg of our long journey through the flora of Burma and I hope that you have enjoyed it (I have done my best to keep things entertaining) and on our way developed an appetite for the ‘Fruits of Burma’. They are at their best here in Burma where they grow and are waiting for you.