You may not have heard of gac fruit before but if you live in Vietnam there’s a damn good chance you’ve eaten it, or a derivative of it, at some point.
Other pet names include the heaven fruit, baby jackfruit, spiny bitter gourd, sweet gourd, cochinchin gourd or if you want to get scientific about it (and in turn give a dyslexic a fresh wave of waking nightmares) “momordica cochinchinensis”. This bright orange, spiky, Pokemon lookalike fruit is almost solely found in Southeast Asia and cannot be exported easily. Unlike bananas that can be shipped off green and trusted to ripen later, gac fruit needs to be ripe to be picked.
If it wasn’t for its inner yellow-skinned recipient, you’d be forgiven for mistaking its pulpy, organ-like insides for the bloody ingredients of a zombie breakfast milkshake. Looks however, can be deceiving and the fruit has traditionally been used both for its nutritional value and medicinal properties all throughout the east.
After reading online of a foreigner brazenly, and unknowingly, biting into the fruit’s raw flesh and boasting of its deliciousness, I stupidly followed in his footsteps in what I’m certain is a very long list of dumb things that tourists do overseas. It was admittedly difficult to find, gac fruit is only in season once a year from December to January, and the rest of the year it’s kept frozen. My pursuit involved several hours of hand gestures with multiple street vendors. I got caught up in a case of a local fruit lady’s missing motorbike keys due to a mischievous child (don’t ask) which then led to a wild goose chase to her house on the other side of town where she had a secret stash of the frozen fruit.
After letting it thaw and nibbling on one of the fleshy, crimson membranous sacs, I now understand the disapproving tuts of my Vietnamese friends – alas, raw gac fruit is anything but heavenly. You have to suck on the pulp around the stone, and the highly astringent bitter medicinal-like taste immediately gave me cottonmouth leaving me spluttering to spit it out in the sink like one’s first pubescent tequila hangover.
As I’m sure many a chain-smoking mothers have said to their offspring, do as I say not as I do, instead opt for the local practice which is to use the seeds of the fruit to soak through their taste and colour into glutinous rice in order to make popular Vietnamese dishes such as xoi gac. The result is a subtle, slightly sweetened and vaguely nutty rice – nothing remotely potent like its original form.
The fruit also makes an appearance during traditional celebrations like the mid-autumn festival in the form of mooncakes: bright, compact little parcels that resemble the texture of laundry tablets (but taste infinitely better) where the red gac fruit meat is mixed with fragrant sticky rice powder resulting in a beautiful shimmery orange colour.
Other than using the fruit for its consumption the seed membranes can be used as a common solution to dry eyes in Vietnamese culture, although I wasn’t as gleefully willing to be the guinea pig in this home remedy.
Due to the shortage of availability all year round, shipping off extracts of gac fruit in powder form is prevalent, especially as its medicinal properties are catching on to the growing surges of health-hipsters around the world, too.
Similar to many fruits and vegetables that are orange or red in colour, gac fruit contains high levels of carotenoids called “lipocarotenes”, even higher than in foods like carrots or sweet potatoes, which already have a significant amount of lycopene content. Health benefits of gac fruit have been linked to preventing vitamin A deficiencies reducing the risk of stroke, and for the health-cherry on top, a study in 2005 discovered a protein in the fruit that suppressed the growth of tumours in mice.
Gac fruit’s health properties haven’t fallen on deaf ears in the beauty industry either, and the transformation of the fruit pulp into an oil makes it an essential ingredient in many anti-aging creams. These tend to already be saturated in vitamin A and E (both abundant in the fruit) and could actually be the real secret as to why no Vietnamese person looks a day over 18.
All these qualities make the fruit an attractive product all over the world, and markets are expanding for potentially growing the exotic fruit abroad, with vines recently popping up in milder climates in North America. If you want to go all out you can even buy gac seeds on Amazon to grow at home – but you might need more than a minute balcony to do so. Gac fruit can grow to be up to five inches long and four inches in diameter – although in a pinch they could prove to be a pretty lethal flying object if you have some pesky neighbours to deal with.