The boat cuts through the calm water like a knife, sending symmetrical ripples out towards the trees that line the narrow canal. Above me, the rotund coconut fruits are gathered in crowded clusters, the palm fronds cast lazy shadows, and the sun shines hot on my back. I am blissfully happy, and can’t think of anywhere I would rather be.
This was the scene when, almost exactly 3 months ago, I went on a boat tour of the Mekong Delta in Ben Tre Province, Vietnam. It was probably one of the best things I did in Vietnam, because not only was I the only passenger, but also because my wonderful guide (and fellow durian-lover) Dai at my request made the tour as food-oriented as possible.
The day was punctuated by many little snacks of tropical fruit, including my first taste of milk fruit, but it was coconut that was the real star of the show. In Vietnam, Ben Tre Province is famous as ‘the island of coconuts’, and it seems as if the whole local economy revolves around these trees and their many products.
Something that surprised and impressed me was how much of the tree is used. The fronds are used for roofs, the husks are used for firewood (more on this in the near future), and the fruit, of course, is used for food – coconut oil, coconut milk, coconut cream, shredded fresh coconut, and the famous Ben Tre coconut candy.
Like most of the boat tours of the Mekong Delta, mine included a trip to one of the local workshops that make this candy, and though it was of course a bit of a tourist trap, by the time Dai and I rocked up (sleepy mid-afternoon) we were the only visitors. Dai happily explained to me in great detail the process involved in making the candy, most of which, sadly, I’ve now totally forgotten, but I did manage to take a few good photos of it: here is the lava-like, pre-cut (peanut variety) candy…
But though the candy factory was undoubtedly interesting, my favourite coconut moment of the day came when we were out on the boat, meandering through the countless, tranquil waterways that crisscross the land, and I saw this:
This is, Dai told me, the fruit of the water coconut, which is not harvested commercially. I’ve tried verifying this info via Google but with no luck, except for this photo, whose Vietnamese caption I put through an online translator with hilarious results (‘Coconut water, broken, collecting firewood, food such as jelly dua. Neu Bui bui quazzzz pale, slightly more for the road. Jueju delicious cat’ – Kent, if you’re reading this, can you shed any light???).
Anyway, the fruit of the water coconut actually bares very little fruit as it turned out. After hacking it off its stalk with some difficulty, Dai separated each of the spiky kernels one-by-one from the rest. He then decided, by eye and weight, which ones were likely to contain any fruit (the smaller, lighter ones were discarded), and those deemed worthy were sliced in half…
That little translucent white thing in there is about the size of a quail’s egg and is the only edible part of the whole pod (no wonder they’re not grown commercially). Taste wise it hinted rather than screamed its membership of the coconut family, and textually was an intriguing blend of glutinous and rubbery – like a cross between jelly and mochi. I wasn’t an instant convert, I have to admit, but the novelty of eating something that you can’t really buy, and not 10 meters away from where it had until now been growing, was pretty cool.