Snapshots from Asia: Sapodillas, The Potatoes That Grow on Trees

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If you’re of South East Asian descent, you know that being called a “potato eater” is a grave thing. It implies that you’ve rejected your culinary heritage of rice as the basis of, and main source of carbohydrates in, your diet. Instead, you’ve embraced the “white man’s” dietary staple of potatoes. The stereotype-laden metaphor encapsulates everything from the languages you speak (or are unable to speak), choice of pastimes, and even the values you hold.

While my diet is a heart-healthy, wholegrain-heavy one, my fondness for potatoes (and inability to speak multiple Chinese dialects) slaps a great, flashing, potato-eating sign on my head. Strangely enough, one type of potato-eating is “excusable," but unlike normal potatoes, this one grows on trees.

'Tree Potatoes' Don't Taste Like Potatoes

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Tree potatoes, otherwise known as sapodillas, sugardillies, chikus, or zapotes, flourish in Asia, Central America, and Florida. Unlike a normal potato, firmness does not a good tree potato make. Firm sapodillas are unripe and guarantee a nasty, tongue-curling experience for the eater due to a high tannin content. Ripe sapodillas are soft, but not mushy, and have the melt-away texture of roasted butternut squash.

The flesh will range in color from milky toffee to a russet brown, and have a tantalizing flavor of pears, muscovado sugar, and bananas. The texture is smooth with a slight granularity (like a ripe pear), and as far as preparation goes, you just need to slice the fruit in half and dig in with a spoon.

How to Pick Sapodillas

A big problem with the sapodilla is worms—they like the creamy, brown sugary flesh as much as we do. A bigger problem is that worms usually win. By the time the fruit ripens, there's almost always a few squiggly things wriggling around inside and chomping away. The solution is to buy only sapodillas that are already ripe and good for eating at the market. Steer clear from the firm or mushy ones, and be sure to give your pick a good once-over for telltale holes. Since supermarkets will only import the extra-firm, unripe fruit that survives transportation, a good time to buy is after the fruit has some days to ripen.

How to Eat Sapodillas

If you have ready access to the fruit (say, a bountiful tree growing in your backyard), there are numerous ways to serve it—battered and fried, stewed with lime juice and ginger, pulped and added to cakes, fermented to make wine, and even to replace apples in pie. But since I come across worm-free and ready-to-eat specimens so rarely, I’m content to simply indulge in them chilled. Do take care with the seeds though; some have a little hook-like protrusion that can snag on your throat if you accidentally swallow them. Very unpleasant.

Besides fruit, the sapodilla tree gives us one of life’s staples. The sap is collected much like latex tapped from rubber trees. This sap is a white, chewy substance called chicle, formerly the main component in chewing gum. Apparently, gum is now made with synthetic rubber, but I say bring chicle back. Maybe then we’ll see more of the sapodilla fruit around, and not be gnawing on rubber tire gum.

About the author: Wan Yan Ling is an impoverished grad student and sourdough finger-crosser living in Rhode Island. She 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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