Summer may be winding down in Northern Vietnam, but we’re still in time to catch the tail end of one of the season’s most ubiquitous and unique products: the dracontomelon fruit. Although its name may conjure up images of a medieval Shakespearean villain, the fruit, also known as quả sấu in Vietnamese, has long been regarded as a speciality unique to Hanoi. It’s often used as a souring agent in Vietnamese cuisine, as a candied treat or juiced into an iced drink to cool down during the hotter days.
The towering trees that bear the dracontomelon fruit are found in the more verdant areas of the capital (which are far and few between) and their green, leafy crowns line some of the city’s most charming streets. Picking the fruits, however, is a rather perilous operation. A handful of brave (read: borderline bonkers) men will clamber up the trees, which, by the way, can grow to be 30 metres high, to collect the fruits from the higher branches. The mission is usually completed in the early hours of the morning and (unsurprisingly) with not so much of a safety rope in sight, which makes me feel rather appreciative of my career choice – the only thing I risk in my job at 5am is falling asleep at the keyboard.
On any given night they can collect up to ten kilos of fruit, which they will either sell to bigger markets or will double up as street vendors themselves during the day. If you drive down Phan Đình Phùng street or its neighbouring areas you’ll easily spot the sellers squatting on the side of the road under the shade of the lush dracontomelon trees, surrounded by copious amounts of plastic bags containing their fruit. For as little as VND20,000 a kilo, locals will often stock up on quả sấu during the summer and freeze it so they can indulge to their heart’s content during the colder months.
When in season, which is usually from May to September, a ripe dracontomelon fruit will fit snugly in the palm of your hand and is no larger than a ping pong ball. The Vietnamese rarely eat it raw, due to its bitterly sour taste, but its most common use is to boil it in a variety of hot pots and soup broths, such as with meat, tomato or even morning glory. Once cooked, the fleshy part of the fruit turns yellow and soft and is deliciously edible. Another popular favourite amongst Hanoian residents is to drink nước sấu (dracontomelon juice). In order to make the juice, the fruits need to be pickled first: the hard outer peel is shaved off, cut into thin strips or carved with circles to speed up the process, and then soaked in sugary water with some added chopped ginger. After a couple of days, the resulting pickled dracontomelon fruit and the sour-sweet combination of the ingredients makes for a revitalizing drink – and thanks to the fruity spidermen’s heroic efforts in retrieving the quả sấu, a well earned one at that.