Enjoy the Best Thai Fruit the Thai Way: A Local Guide
Fertile, agrarian countries like Thailand are collectively known as the food basket of the world, but part of the Kingdom’s claim to fame is as a producer of tropical fruit.
In 2019, Thailand was the sixth largest exporter of fruits, and the leading exporter of durian, mangosteen, and longan. Even amid the latest wave of COVID-19 infections, Thai fruit exports during the first seven months of 2021 grew an impressive 48.31% (🇹🇭) from the same period last year.
While Thailand remains a treasure trove of beloved tropical fruits like durian and mangosteen, most people might not know exactly where in the country to find the best fruits or how these fruits are enjoyed the local way.
In this article, we’ll peel back the layers of Thai fruits, including the best places to find certain varieties and the unique ways that fruits are savored in Thai dishes.
Tracing the best Thai fruit to its roots
Eastern Thailand has gotten plenty of attention as a manufacturing base and the home of the country’s Eastern Economic Corridor. What you may not know is that several provinces in the region together form an agricultural powerhouse.
Chanthaburi, in particular, is beloved as a fruit destination (🇹🇭) and known as the “City of Fruits.” Its rich soil and water resources have enabled farmers to cultivate several varieties of tropical fruits, including cash cows like durian, mangosteen, and rambutan. As a result, the province has dozens of fruit orchards (🇹🇭), where visitors can enjoy picking farm-fresh fruits at affordable prices.
Chanthaburi has taken advantage of its unique reputation, offering fruit-themed experiences such as fruit buffets (🇹🇭), a laboratory-themed fruit café (🇹🇭), and its annual Fruitpital Fair. It’s no wonder the Tourism Authority of Thailand has listed Chanthaburi as one of its “12 hidden gems.”
Amid a broader global trend towards healthy eating, many of the province’s orchards have banded together to rely on organic techniques and are certified under Participatory Guarantee Systems.
Many of these “fruitful” experiences can be enjoyed across the eastern region, including the neighboring provinces of Trat, Rayong, Sa Kaeo, and Prachin Buri. As you might expect, the harvest season from April to July creates a surplus and is the best time to enjoy quality fruits at competitive prices.
Enjoying tropical fruits the Thai way
Though tropical fruits in Thailand are already divine on their own, you might be surprised by the unique ways that fruits are enjoyed in Thai cuisine. The sheer abundance of tropical fruits means that Thailand has plenty of opportunities and experience in balancing them with other ingredients.
As noted by Chef Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava, founder of artisanal Thai ingredients grocer Bo.lan Grocer, “you might have spicy, sweet, sour, [and] salty all in one dish.”
Dips are probably the most common way Thai people add some heat to their fruits. For instance, green mango and nam pla wan (sweet fish sauce) are basically soulmates in Thailand.
Unlike yellow or ripe mango, which fills your mouth with aromatic sweetness at the first bite, most green mango—like raet or rhino mango—are too sour to enjoy on their own. Instead, they are served with nam pla wan—a thick, sweet & salty dipping sauce with a touch of just-hot-enough spice that balances out the flavor.
In addition to nam pla wan, there are also other popular dips such as chili salt blends, which can generally be found at Thai fruit carts, and sour plum powder, which pairs well with starchier fruits like guava.
Coconut milk sticky rice
While mango and sticky rice has made it to the top of several lists of the most popular Thai desserts, coconut milk sticky rice or khao niew moon isn’t only reserved for mango. The luscious, creamy texture of the rice with just a touch of saltiness from the coconut milk makes it the perfect match for the natural sweetness in most fruits, particularly durian and longan.
Nevertheless, If you happen to crave mango with sticky rice while reading this article, it’s good to know that the best season for ripe mangoes in Thailand is the summer (March–May). Though they might look almost indistinguishable, there are over 200 varieties of mangoes grown by Thai farmers, each with a different taste and texture.
The most popular kinds (🇹🇭) that are served with coconut milk sticky rice are oak rong and nam dok mai.
Loy kaew or “fruit in syrup”
Originally a way to preserve food, loy kaew refers to “fruit in syrup.” During the harvest season, Thai people often faced the problem of surplus produce. Thus, they came up with creative ways to preserve their extra produce, including by fermentation, dehydration, and loy kaew.
Since the loy kaew technique involves soaking fruit in sweet syrup, the process is often done on fruit that is more on the tangy spectrum. Some of the most popular options include sala, toddy palm, and santol.
In the end, it’s a matter of personal preference, as the process works on any fruit. On a hot, muggy summer afternoon, nothing beats a bowl of chilled loy kaew fruit with crushed ice.
Fruit in savory dishes
The most (in)famous use of fruit in savory dishes may be pineapple pizza, but in Thailand, people have no qualms about mixing the savory with the tangy. The rationale for pineapple in Thai cuisine is that the acidity helps cut through any rich or oily flavors, while adding yet another dimension to the flavor of the dish. As a result, pineapple is often incorporated into curries thickened with coconut milk.
Another popular combination is yum ma muang or spicy green mango salad. The acidity of raw mango is the key to a good zaap or sour dish. This can be enjoyed on its own or accompanied with fried foods, such as fried snapper.
While the pandemic has disrupted food supply chains, Thai farmers have continued to find every opportunity to improve efficiencies and crop yields, leveraging smart irrigation systems for more sustainable agriculture.
Nonetheless, certain activities like fruit picking and farm tours continue to pose a challenge during the pandemic. Several farmers (🇹🇭) have therefore transitioned to e-commerce, allowing consumers to have fresher produce delivered right to their doorstep. The state postal service, Thailand Post, has also contributed to supporting farmers by reducing delivery costs as well as offering online platforms for promotional purposes.
Still, the conveniences of home delivery are no substitute for the experience of traveling to the local orchards and plucking your own fruit. When it is safe to travel again, we hope you will get the chance to re-discover Thai fruits and all the ways that Thai people enjoy them.