Snapshots from Asia: Tropical Fruit Feast; Tong Sui, Sea Coconut, and Toddy Palm Fruit
When I’m asked about the foods I miss most from home, friends get incredulous when I mention Mom’s tong sui or “sugar water.”
"Sugar water? But you’re not even all that fond of sweet things!" they say.
Off-puttingly saccharine as it may sound, tong sui is no syrup bog but a lightly sweetened broth of nutritious goodness—an extension of the traditional Chinese medicine belief that all food (even dessert) is medicinal and can help bring your body into better balance and health.
Unfortunately, tong sui tend to be complicated affairs involving multiple ingredients and hours of double boiling and so, in my world, tong sui is produced by super moms and super dads, not lazy offspring.
There are numerous recipes for tong sui with ingredients as varied as papaya and bird’s nest, but the one pictured above is a personal favorite: aromatic, red jujube dates, crisp, snow fungus, fragrant pandanus leaf, honeyed and dried longans and the star of the show, slippery sea coconuts—all gently simmered with a touch of rock sugar and served refreshingly chilled on a hot summer’s day.
It is the sea coconut, in particular, that requires a mother’s love to make it to the table. First, the fresh fruit has to be tracked down—few market stalls carry it as the fruit sours quickly in the tropical heat. Then, the fruit’s brown shell has to be painstakingly peeled off to reveal its glistening, milky white flesh.
The flesh is sliced into quarter-inch thick loops and separated into “firm” and “tender” piles. Firm-fleshed portions of the fruit have to be simmered for a longer time to reach a desired softness (think young, coconut flesh), while care has to be taken not to simmer the softer-fleshed portions into oblivion.
Unlike the regular coconut, which offers rich, creamy flesh and delicious nectar, the sea coconut is all flesh and no nectar. In a surprising twist, you’ll find its flesh tastes like sweet, faintly tangy coconut nectar—a coconut nectar jelly, if you will.
Interestingly, the sea coconut I’ve been talking about so far—and what every Asian restaurant menu and canned fruit label claims is sea coconut—is not true sea coconut (Lodoicea maldivica), but rather the fruit of the toddy palm (Borassus flabellifer).
Ask for the fruit of the toddy palm, though, and you’ll be met with blank stares. The true sea coconut is a protected species, endemic to only two of the 115 Seychelle Islands. Export is strictly controlled, with each fruit bearing a government-issued serial tag. Once believed to grow from a mythical tree on the bottom of the sea, sea coconut shells were coveted and adorned with priceless gems by European nobles in the 16th century.
I haven't had true sea coconut, and doubt I ever will. But I reckon the fruit of the toddy palm plays second fiddle to none. A convenient alternative to the fresh fruit are the cans of prepared “honey sea coconut” stocked in groceries. You may not get the medicinal properties derived from making tong sui from scratch, but if all you’re after is a tasty dessert, the canned version more than suffices. Simply chill before serving with a twist of lime, or fancy it up by adding items like lychees, longans and pineapple-stuffed rambutans. Yum!
This marks the end of the Tropical Fruit Feast series, folks. Over the summer, we’ve eaten our way through jackfruit, rambutans and pulasans, starfruit, sapodillas, wampee fruit, longans, snakefruit, lychees, and red-fleshed dragonfruit. We have probably eaten our weight in fruit and are very glad the feasting was done close to the source, away from scary prices. Next week, it’s back to the regular Snapshots from Asia for more eating!
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.