A picture depicting a rural agricultural scene of coconut and banana trees fronted by rice fields best sums up the native foods of most Asians. However, few will see beyond the obvious hanging fruits, when the two tropical trees have much more to offer.
If you literally get to the core, you will find the real gastronomic delights awaiting you. Just think, the white rod-like center of the tree can be harvested for food!
Hearts Of Palm
‘See that pointy tip of the trunk, right at the top of that queen palm,’ she said. ‘That’s where the heart or bud is’. I have been on the trail of the palm heart ever since the day that precocious, dusky kid in class divulged that tidbit of information to me.
On second thoughts, my heart fell, for if you cut off the tip, you cut it dead. However, palms with multiple stems will survive; for if you chop off the main trunk, one of the remaining ones will take its place.
On cutting off the trunk, the bark is stripped; this exposes the shell that protects the palm heart. Later on, when I heard that the banana stem pith is just as good for food, I doubled up on my supposedly Sherlock Holmes-like power and pursuit. I love it when yet familiar trees are keeping things new and exciting around themselves.
To me, the pith or heart of the palm looks no different from that of the banana. Fearful that I might act in haste, a gardener gave a stern warning, that the banana tree is never to be chopped down till after fruiting or the stem is not fit for food.
Now, most authentic cuisines are born out of what the tree offers. For example, the Myanmarese dish of a spicy noodle dish called ‘mohinga’, is nothing without a palm heart. My observation finds one evidence of the folding up of a food stall because the chef had no luck getting hold of this one ingredient.
How shall I describe the 2 piths? Well, they are very much reminiscent of the white rolls of scraped coconut flakes steamed in green hollow bamboo, and eaten with a bit of palm sugar. However, palm hearts or coconut piths make incredibly good tasting salads, seasoned with salt, lemon juice and coriander. They also go well in savory dishes as accompaniments to boiled rice. Diced very finely, the fruit tree piths sre lightly fried with lots of garlic and shallots, a dash of rice wine and salt.
Nit surprisingly, the health benefits of the 2 tree cores mirror each other: their high fiber content keeps your digestive system in tip-top shape; both are very low in cholesterol which makes them very effective weight loss foods that taste good at the same time; and they are simply great in regulating your blood pressure with their rich supplies of potassium.
Unlike the rod-shaped palm heart, the scaly-skinned top-like salak palm fruits are found growing in clusters right at the base of the palm. Nothing beats eating fruits picked straight off the tree. An excellent supplementary food, salak fruits are good: for your eyes, because of beta-carotene; for your brain owing to its potassium and pectin, and for your skin, with their anti-oxidants just like Vitamin-C and also phenolic compounds.
Sago Palm Fruits
Yet another palm, the queen sago (Cycas circinalis), tagged ‘Bread from the Wild’, used to stand the tallest among all the other palms. A welcome addition to the Asian diet, it still boasts of producing a flour just as good as rice flour. The green Cycas seeds, looking like ambarella fruits, are boiled in water for more than three times, and then left to dry, before being grounded into flour for the making of bread. This is a rare instance of a seed whose nutritious value matches that of a grain.
Once a while, to spur on your flagging appetite, you can take some of with these native whole foods. Good, honest, real-tasting food, as only foragers will know, can make an uplifting, enjoyable eating experience which is also satisfying to the core.