Snapshots from Asia: The Mysterious Wampee Fruit

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I don’t know about you guys, but the most exciting part about traveling for me is discovering new things that smack you in the face with a great, big, “Hello, I exist! And I am delicious!

Last week, I poked through Hong Kong’s street markets, asking vendors nosy questions and snapping surreptitious shots of seafood still splashing in tubs. There was eating too—lots and lots of eating. Many of the sights were a blast into the past, a remembrance of how things ought to be and still are on this island of startling contrasts. Rice flour rolls freshly steamed and rolled before your eyes; towering skyscrapers amidst bustling, squawking, croaking, cawing, livestock markets. But the one thing that stopped me dead in my tracks—these yellow-skinned lovelies called wampees.

With a slightly fuzzy coat, the fruits resembled kiwi berries, but the canary sheen reminded me of golden kiwis, not the regular green kiwis. But no, this was an entirely different fruit. Known in the local Cantonese dialect as "wongpay" and in Chinese as "huangpi," the direct translation is “yellow skin.” To really get the background story, you have to research by its Latin designation, “clausena lansium."

Grown in China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Australia, South America, and even in Florida and Hawaii, it's baffling that I've never set eyes on the wampee. Especially as it appears to be a fairly valuable traditional medicine, used in various guises to treat everything from bronchitis to dandruff, poor appetites, hepatitis, and even HIV. The wampee is also known as a “cooling” fruit, eaten to counteract the negative effects of indulging in too many “heaty” lychees.

I eagerly popped the entire wampee into my mouth, noting similarities to the thick-skinned sugarone grape, but it wasn't quite as sweet. The skin had a mildly bitter edge, making it an “adult” fruit. Most people choose to discard the skins since they're “too resinous to be palatable," but as a grapefruit fan, I was fine with the bitterness. Slurping out wampee insides is easy: just pierce the skin with your fingernail. The tart jelly-like pulp interior makes feasting on wampees like feasting on mini jelly cups, minus the corn syrup nonsense. (I like.)

I've come across descriptions of the wampee being fermented with sugar to produce a fizzy drink similar to champagne in South East Asia. There are also rumblings of the fruit being roasted with meats or made into jams and pies. But I've not been able to track down a single first hand account of its use (and you can guess it's driving me nuts). If indeed, the wampee is grown darn near everywhere, then why is the fruit—and information on it—so elusive? Anyone?

This girl needs her next wampee hit.

About the author: Wan Yan Ling can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.

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