Southeast Asian

The Fruit I Traveled 9000 Miles to Eat

January 11, 2016

It's crazy to travel halfway around the world to eat a piece of fruit.

But I'd be lying if I said that snake fruit (salak in Bahasa Indonesia) didn't account for 85% of why I wanted take a trip to Indonesia this winter.

I'd tasted the reptilian fruit (its skin is scaly and even a bit sharp) seven-and-a-half years ago and had not seen it anywhere in the U.S. since. With the texture of garlic, the concentrated sweetness of an apple, marble-like pits, and fun lobes you can pull apart, the snake fruit is an eligible candidate for an unrequited, impossible love.

Holding hands with my beloved salak.

While we source a lot of elusive ingredients for photo shoots, we've never been called upon to source salak, and for that I am grateful. A quick Google search for sources in the U.S. turns up almost no results. (Nope, it's probably not even in Chinatown.)

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Once we touched down in the country, it was everywhere: Heck, it was at the airport! And then once we left the airport, it was at the market and sold by the side of a the highways, stacked to the tipping point in trucks with "Organik" and "Super" signs.

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Top Comment:
“It is a unique and fantastic fruit. However, for that particular experience, I recommend Malaysian durian over Indonesian ones. Also, be sure to try mangosteen, if you haven't already. Durian and mangosteen, the king and queen of fruits. (Forbidden in most Asian hotels, durian for its distinctive aroma and mangosteen for its propensity to stain.”
— Malay

(Strangely, it was not served at any of our hotels; my guess is that it might be thought not appeal to foreign guests.)

But I was naïve to think that I had traveled only for snake fruit. Our guidebook had a whole section of Indonesian fruits, many of which can only be found there. I tried mangosteens and longan and soursop and rambutan and a jam made with a wild berry known as buni. I did not try durian but it smelled up many a street.

Two other Indonesian natives: rambutan and pomelo.

And then there was the mysterious jambu air, which our guidebook called a "water apple," a name that greatly appealed to this apple obsessive. (It's also known as a rose apple.) On our second to last day, we explained to our taxi driver, who was pointing out the rambutan and dragon fruit trees drooping with fruit right off the road, that we were still looking for the pink, bell-shaped fruit.

He spotted the thing we'd spent two weeks looking for on a nearby tree. (A miracle!) He pulled over, rang the doorbell of the nearby house, and plucked us fruit to try. They weren't so ripe and were a bit hard and watery, but nevertheless, the taste—something like a melon but sweeter and sharper—was nothing I'd experienced before.

Jambu air, how happy I was to hold you! (Even if you're not quite ripe.)

Let this be my lesson to think beyond restaurants (and grocery stores) when I'm traveling—and to seek out markets, fruit stalls, and trees (as long as I ask permission first).

It's a wonderful thing that there are still fruits that can only be found in one place in the world, and I may have never seen them had my eyes been focused only on the breakfast at our hotel or dinner at a café.

I guess I'll just have to go back for that durian.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Margarita Mier
    Margarita Mier
  • Antoniabalonia
  • Emily
  • Panfusine
  • Allysa Rismaya Dwi Putrie
    Allysa Rismaya Dwi Putrie
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Margarita M. November 20, 2019
I'm so glad I'm NOT the ONLY one hunting for this amazing fruit! If anybody knows how to order and ship to USA, let me know. I have tried twice with NO luck. I really miss the Salak!
I might have to go to Bali again.
Antoniabalonia January 27, 2018
I’m originally from Hawaii, and most of the fruits you mention grow there as well. The jambu air fruit in your photo is called “mountain apple” in Hawaii and is best when a very crimson red. We also have what we call “rose apple”, but it is yellow and round and smooth-skinned and taste like roses.
Emily January 27, 2018
I've also had snakefruit, and many of the others you mentioned (including the incredibly malodorous Durian 😱), in Bali and Southeast Asia. But take a shorter plane ride to any farmers market on the Big Island or Kauai and you can get many of the same fruits, including the elusive but even more marvelous egg fruit.
Panfusine August 15, 2017
FOrtnum and Mason in London was stocked up on snake fruit. they even showed me how to cut one up and taste it before I bought some..
Sarah J. August 15, 2017
No way! If only I could go on a whirlwind trip to London (or get a friend to send me some...)!
Allysa R. January 17, 2016
oh my god, you were in Indonesia? Hohoho, there are a lot of (another weird) fruits here. If you're here next time, please try "Sawo" >.< (by the way, rambutan can caused coughing on a summer day)
Retoño E. January 15, 2016
It' s funny, I' m from Ecuador, and we have them all here as well ;) diferent names though
Chau T. January 15, 2016
rambutan can be found in asian grocery stores. more exotic fruits in vietnam. love mangosteen. and i eat pomelo all the time so not too exotic
Kitchen B. January 15, 2016
We have the rose apple too in Nigeria. So interesting. Like the look of the snake fruit, or rather the sound of it.
Fifa A. January 13, 2016
You must try Matoa, it's from Papua but nowadays relatively easy to find at fruitmarkets. Stone like durian. Skin: hard, smooth like passionfruit. Flesh texture: like rambutan or longan. Taste: like fruits mix, a bit like durian, a bit like longan although not as juicy nor as sweet. Smell like a faintest durian.
Darren P. January 13, 2016
I remember tasting snake fruit in Birney, never would have thought to taste it if not for a local suggesting it to us. Very unique look and taste. I love mangosteen, it is so hard to find here in Australia, I would travel back to Malaysia for the fruit ☺
Sun. January 12, 2016
You should try Nangka (Jackfruit) and my personal favourite, Cempedak, it's the same genus as Jackfruit, more mushy though and stronger smell (kinda like durian smell just sweeter), usually we make it into a fritter and serve it with palm sugar syrup.
Henry J. January 12, 2016
I agree with Amanda. I am really glad that you are back. Nice hands, by the way. I really can't predict which durian camp you will end up in.
thedessertsnob January 12, 2016
I bought Jambu air in Chinatown in NYC a few years ago. It was sold as "Vietnamese Apple". I've never seen it before so bought a few to try.
Alecta January 12, 2016
I'm in Toronto, and I see rose apple/jambu air, rambutan, pomelo and many exotics at the local supermarket. Ihave seen the rare durian, tightly wrapped. I don't recall seeing Salak, but I'll keep an eye out.
PW January 12, 2016
All of these fruits mentioned here can be found in any southeast Asian country, not just Indonesia!
missmixte January 12, 2016
That "jambu air" you are holding is not quite ripe....wait for a deep pink/red color, and it's sweet with tart flair... once you taste it, you will salivate at the name or thought of it for years to come.
missmixte January 12, 2016
Also, if you do decide to do a durian trip...head to Mindanao-Davao, Philippines, where it is not simply consumed but celebrated...sculptures, candy, gum, you name it.
Sarah J. January 12, 2016
Thanks for the tip! Sounds fab (if a little stinky).
Esther January 12, 2016
Dear durian haters, no need for fruit-ist remarks (kidding, kidding, don't hate me). But on a more serious note, I'm assuming you guys have only tried the yellowish one. Give the red-fleshed durian (native to Kalimantan, Indonesian territory of Borneo) a try and see if you still detest it :-)

Yes, I'm a front-line defender of Durian.

Jati J. January 14, 2016
You mean lai? Urgh...for durian lovers, its big failure hahahhahaha...
Marian B. January 12, 2016
<3 <3 <3 this is beautiful and also very cool. i'm jealous!
Alison M. January 12, 2016
I've never heard of snake fruit before - both the appearance and your flavour description really intrigues me! I love rambutan, longan and mangosteen, but no durian for me thank you! I've tried and tried... can't do it!
The jambul air may not have been ripe - but would it ripen further off the tree once it's been picked? Seems such a shame if you weren't able to try it :(
Greenstuff January 11, 2016
I haven't seen salak, but thankfully, rambutan, durian, and a number of the others are available at my local (San Francisco area) markets. And, just checking, I see you can even get fresh rambutan (my favorite) from amazon. Who would have thought?