When I first saw these clustered together in a marketplace basket, I thought they belonged to the nether regions of some hapless and endangered male armadillo. Remember: this is Cambodia… anything is possible edible.
The young woman working the stall smiled and peeled the spiny brown snakeskin from one, revealing two off-white globes.
Ugh, I thought. Suspicion confirmed.
The woman thrust one of the globes at me and I waved my hands, “No meat. No balls,” I said. “I’m a vegetarian.”
She cocked her head, popped the globe in her mouth, chewed, then spat out a shiny blackish-brown seed. She rubbed her belly, then handed me the second one. Resigned, I put the fleshy ball in my mouth and… Yum! Oh goodness! Sweet something delicious! The texture of a cherry; a taste like a sugar-sprinkled sour pineapple. I was hooked. I bought a bushel and ate them until I felt sick.
Salak (Salacca zalacca), also known as snake fruit, grows in clusters on cactus-like palms that are native to Indonesia. Today, the thumb-sized fruits are cultivated throughout Southeast Asia, particularly in peninsular Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and the Indonesian islands of Bali and Java. Considered a delicacy, my local market sells salak for the exorbitant price of 4000 to 6000 riel per kilogram (approximately $1 to 1.50 USD).
To eat salak, break off the hollow tip and peel the scaly skin until the white inner flesh is revealed. Pop the fruit in your mouth and spit out the seed. Pods usually contain two fruits, although single and triple pods are also common. In my experience, the single pods are the tastiest: the fruit in double and triple pods tend to be drier and less flavourful.
Because of its hard protective skin, salak has a long shelf life and can easily be thrown into a backpack for a snack. Word of warning: the little hair-like spines on the skin can stick in your fingers!
To my Canadian friends: you’ll be hard-pressed finding salak, even in the multitudinous fruit cornucopia that is Toronto’s Chinatown. However, it is rumoured that an Indonesian snack vendor at the CNE’s international pavilion sells it. Go out and be delicious!