The Sweetest Thing: a Quick Guide to Cambodia’s Favourite Fruits

For those who care to give a fig about their health, Cambodia offers a fruity bonanza (a bananza!!).

Cambodia’s massive range of fresh, fragrant fruits in vibrant shades of red, orange, yellow, green, brown, pink and purple, can be found piled high at every market. They’re not only delicious, but also come packed with vitamins, minerals and nutrients that are essential to a healthy and balanced diet. So we’ve cherry picked some of our favourites to give you a run-down on just how lusciously good they really are.

Durian

Known as “Thouren” in Khmer, durian is frequently called the “King” of tropical fruits. It’s recognisable from a great distance thanks to its relatively huge size and distinctively mud-green, spiky rind. And some prefer their observations to rest entirely there, at a great distance, thanks to the durian’s famously stinky flesh. Its fragrance is so pungent, penetrating and persistent that it is famously barred from hotels, public spaces and transport all over Asia. Whatever about getting caught in a lift, imagine being stuck on a plane next to one.

But if you’re able to pinch your nose and put the matter of the ‘perfume’ to one side, it is possible to join the ranks of very serious durian fans. This is the Marmite of fruits: people either hate it (from their distance vantage point), or they love it once they’ve tasted it.

Durian’s fragrance is so strong, and distinctive, that it is famously banned from hotels, transport and other public places. While opinions about the aroma can vary, it is widely agreed that the flesh is nonetheless very, very tasty. Peeling away the layer of short, hard thorns reveals the soft, creamy-yellow flesh inside that can be cut into segments and eaten raw or mixed into desserts. Early in the durian’s season, which runs from May until June, it’s also possible to cook it into a curry like jackfruit.

The fruit itself is packed full of vitamins, nutrients and minerals that it is considered one of the most nutritious fruits in the world. It’s also rich in antioxidants, and all their healing powers.

In Cambodia, all parts of the durian tree – leaves, skin, roots and fruit – are used in traditional medicine to treat a variety of illnesses, including fever, jaundice and skin conditions. Research is currently being done on durian nut flours for making high-energy and protein outputs. The rind contains compounds that have antibacterial properties.

Coconut

Another staple of the Cambodian diet, coconut is a regular sight on Cambodia’s streets where vendors pile them in pyramids ready for immediate consumption to cool down on a hot day. The juice of young coconuts is incredibly refreshing, and may be exactly what you need if you’re dehydrated. The clear sweet water contains the electrolytes your body needs in order to stimulate its ability to absorb water. Ironically, when you’re dehydrated, your body’s capacity to absorb liquid is depleted. While it is not more hydrating than plain water, water on its own can’t trigger the body’s mechanisms for absorption as efficiently as coconut water can.

The flesh of these young fruits is sweeter and slicker than the flesh of a mature coconut, but it is also highly beneficial, rich in minerals and vitamins, and contains some powerful antioxidants

Mangosteen

The mangosteen, called “Meangkhout” in Khmer, is an exquisite fruit. Composed of either five or seven dazzling white wedges with a sublime sweet, tart and juicy taste wrapped up in a rind that scarcely be duller or more unappealing. Secret trick: if you want to impress someone, or win a bet though that would be devious, make a bet on how many segments are inside. The number will always match the number of “petals” on the little flower-like stub at the bottom of the fruit.

Mangosteen has unique antioxidant properties. It contains several nutrients with antioxidant capacities, including an antioxidant powerhouse, xanthone. Studies have demonstrated serious benefits from daily consumption of mangosteen.

Lychee

Called “Koulen” in Khmer, the lychee is small, round and spiny and red on the outside with translucent, pearly white flesh wrapped around a hard, dark seed on the inside. In Asia, lychees will only grow in a narrow band of territory stretching across South and Southeast Asia. They were once highly desired by the courtiers of a suite of Chinese dynasties. In the 1st Century, a special courier service run by especially swift horses was created to transport fresh lychees from Canton to the Imperial Court in the north.

A single glass of fresh lychee juice contains more than twice the recommended daily intake of vitamin C. It is also a good source of copper. Moreover, lychees have a high concentration of antioxidants which can help to minimise cancer, heart disease, diabetes and ageing. Definitely one to linger over.

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Longan

Known as ‘Mean’ in the Khmer language, the longan is another small, round, sweet tropical fruit and is part of the lychee family. It is less striking than the lychee though, with a dull, ruddy and brittle shell, but once peeled, the snow-white flesh is silky and sweet, though perhaps not as sweetly flavoured as its cousin, the lychee. The longan’s advantage though is that it is easier to grow, and ripens longer and later than the lychee. The shiny black seed in the centre has helped to give rise to the nickname, “dragons eye”.

Longan is rich in vitamin C and polyphenols. Due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, the fruit is used in traditional Chinese medicine to improve appetite, reduce fever and fight parasitic infections.

Rambutan

Another close relation of the lychee, rambutan, known as ‘Saomao’ in Khmer, has a unique appearance, with a ruddy outer shell that is covered with thick the outer skin being a squishy ruddy-pink shell that is covered with thick, lime-green hairs. The sweet, succulent flesh is translucent white, and contains a small stone.

Rambutan is highly nutritious, rich in vitamins, minerals and beneficial plant compounds and offers health benefits ranging from weight loss and improved digestion to increased resistance to infection. The fruit also contains a good amount of copper, which plays a role in the growth of various cells, especially bone, brain and heart cells. The fruit is also rich in vitamin C and also offers small amounts of manganese, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, iron and zinc.

For dieters, rambutan is low in calories, but high in water and fibre. This combination makes you feel fuller for longer, which can contribute to weight loss over time.

Banana

Bananas, called “Chek” in Khmer, grow abundantly in Cambodia and are a staple part of the national diet. Bananas are peculiar because they do not grow on trees, but are instead the fruit of a perennial herb which grows a complete new “trunk” every year. A wide range of varieties is available here which you’ll find ranged in “hands” on market stalls throughout the kingdom. Here bananas are eaten raw and cooked, and are often fried or sun-dried. They often are the object of offerings during religious ceremonies.

Bananas are a popular fruit and offer many health benefits. The fruit is rich in fibre, antioxidants and several nutrients, and a medium-sized banana contains about 105 calories. Bananas are a great source of potassium and magnesium – two nutrients that are essential for heart health and energy. They are rich in antioxidants, which can help reduce free radical damage and lower the risk of certain diseases. Eating this fruit during exercise helps relieve muscle cramps and also provides excellent fuel for endurance exercise thanks to the way it slowly releases its goodness into the system.

Mango

If bananas are the Charlie Chaplins of the fruit world (a bit funny looking, but versatile and talented), then mangoes would be Grace Kelly, a star with class and elegance, though it has to be said mangoes are highly versatile too. Called ‘Svay’ in Khmer, mangoes are the second most popular tropical fruits in the world, after the redoubtable banana, and are appreciated for the smooth, sweet and fragrant, rich yellow flesh. They can be eaten ripe or unripe, fresh or dried, or cooked into fiery chutneys.

Mangoes are a stone fruit that are not only delicious, but also have an impressive nutritional profile. Mangoes are low in calories, but high in nutrients – especially vitamin C, which promotes immunity, iron absorption and growth. Mangoes contain more than a dozen different types of polyphenols, including mangiferin, which is particularly potent. The fruit is also a good source of folate, several B vitamins, as well as vitamins A, C, K and E – all of which help strengthen the immune system. Mangoes contain magnesium and potassium, all of which contribute to good heart health, and they also contain lutein, zeaxanthin and vitamin A – all of which support eye health.

Jackfruit

Known as ‘Khnol’ in Khmer, the jackfruit is an oval fruit with a light green, knobbly skin. When cut, the fruit has a sweet, fragrant smell and the bright yellow flesh has a sweet and subtle taste, which some compare to a combination of fruits: apples, pineapple, mangoes and bananas. A unique aspect of the jackfruit is its unusually large size. It is the largest fruit in the world, with some specimens weighing up to 35 kg.

Jackfruits are frequently enjoyed raw, but their fibrous textures also makes them perfect for cooking in hearty stews and curries, and so they are much loved by vegans, vegetarians or anyone looking for a tasty alternative to meat. They’re packed with protein, fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, but are low in sugar so perfect for weight watchers too.

Watermelon

Cambodians call this fruit “Ovloeuk”, and you’ll often come across piles of watermelons at markets or roadside stalls. Their refreshingly juicy flesh means they are most appreciated when eaten fresh, but they can also be frozen, juiced or added to smoothies where they add a pleasant, subtle but well-rounded sweetness and a light grainy texture.

Watermelon is the richest known dietary source of the amino acid citrulline, and also comes with a heavy dose of lycopene, both powerful plant compounds. Aside from being incredibly refreshing, it can also help to reduce blood pressure, improve insulin sensitivity and reduce muscle soreness. Consisting mostly of water, it is of course low in calories and fibre, but it is a good source of vitamin C, and decent amounts of potassium, copper, vitamin B5 and vitamin A.

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