Fruit Nuts

Story by Matt Heidkamp Photos by Teo J.Babini

Photo ©Teo J.Babini

Deep in the jungles of East Asia is layered with rare and exotic fruits, shrouded in mystery and unseen to most of the western world. In that regard, I guess I am quite “American” when it comes to fruits. Apples, oranges, bananas. Pretty standard stuff.

It wasn’t until a buddy of mine named Josh started jabbering on about all the designer and limited edition fruits he’d been eating: sumo citrus oranges, illegally imported mangosteens, taste bud altering miracle berries. He was really jazzed up about ordering a seventy dollar box of honeybell oranges, a fruit that’s only available a few weeks out of the year. Seventy bucks was crazy, I thought. But then again, so are rare fruit hunters, who pride themselves in finding these nutrient-rich delicacies the way an archeologist digs for royal artifacts.

Photo ©Teo J.Babini

I was intrigued. Looking to Josh as a wise fruit shaman, I consulted him on starting my own produce journey.

“If you respect yourself, if you respect the magic that we call taste buds, you’ll go down the rabbit hole that is Asian Markets. Ask the right person and you could wind up in a fruit boutique that’s never been seen by the eyes of a white man.”

My palette was ready for a mystifying taste experience as we headed towards the urban jungle known as Chinatown.

Photo ©Teo J.Babini

For Josh, a box of exotic pears was all it took for him to dive head first into the world of rare fruit hunting. He made it sound like he was mining for blood diamonds in South Africa, a world filled with black market-style transactions, questionably legal foods, and a tantalizing reward for your tongue. We swerved throughout Chinatown, lost and overwhelmed by the abundance of raw fish and colorful vegetables.

Now, for first time fruit hunters, you should know this: bring pictures of the fruits you want. I carried only a list with me; not realizing that nine out of ten signs would be in Cantonese only. Standing dumbfounded while looking up fruit pictures on your phone will only get you yelled at by the shop owner while the smell of day old bananas and cat piss grow stronger.

Photo ©Teo J.Babini

We dug deeper into the baby Hong Kong. I was hoping we would stumble upon some back alley fruit den, a place where tong gangsters with gambling habits chain-smoke cigarettes and place bets using dragon fruit and kumquats as currency. Where plum smugglers and pineapple hustlers would be playing pool and shootin’ the shit.

We saw a store that read “Meat Market”, but were clearly selling fruits. We thought the ill-conceived decoy was a hint that we were heading towards a place where they were trying to hide what they were really selling. Perhaps it was something illegal and exotic. To our demise, the only thing we found was durian, the self-proclaimed “King” of fruit that weighed over ten pounds and had the spiky exoskeleton of a porcupine. This fruit could kill you. A Chinese America lady warned us, “If you’re not used to the smell, don’t buy it. You probably can’t handle it.” She talked us out of the Durian bomb and pointed us in the direction of the best fruit stand around: a quasi-legal van operation run by a little grandma who smokes like a chimney on the corner of Mott and Canal.

Photo ©Teo J.Babini

We had made it to Mecca, loaded up on the weirdest looking fruits we could find, and escaped TO New York. The pictures you see here are the findings of my first foray into fruit hunting; delicate artifacts and rare finds from around the globe, gloriously displayed and admired before being ingested amongst co-workers. I don’t know a whole lot about these rarities, but good God, mangosteen is delicious.

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