In a neighbourhood playground, a tent has been set up, the canopy overhead providing shelter from the blistering heat of the day. Under this shade, a long table can be seen, laid out with an array of strange-looking fruits. Each one is unique, and tellingly, most are completely indiscernible to many of the people in attendance.
“Mak, what is this?” asks a young child, pointing at a gnarled brown husk. His mother looks on, equally perplexed. “Erm, I don’t know,” she finally admits.
“Most people have probably never seen more than half of the fruits here,” confirms Dr Abdul Aziz Zakaria, 73, a retired Universiti Pertanian Malaysia (now known as Universiti Putra Malaysia) lecturer and avid collector of durians and other local fruits (he has grown more than 50 local fruits on his three farms in Kelantan).
Aziz was instrumental in putting together the display of about 60 local fruits at a neighbourhood gathering for residents of Taman Tun Abdul Razak in Kuala Lumpur – his way of disseminating as much information as possible to the younger generation before some of the fruits become totally extinct and unattainable.
“What I am trying to do is introduce these fruits to younger parents and their children, then they will remember it when they see it in gardens and parks in the future,” he says.
An introduction to local fruits
According to retired Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute research officer Rukayah Aman in her seminal book Buah-Buahan Nadir Semenanjung Malaysia (2006), there are over 100 species of fruits in Malaysia.
Some like soursop, pineapple and ciku were introduced from other continents but have since acclimated and become part of the local fruit tapestry.
Of these over 100 species, 16 are classified as fruits that have commercial value like durian (but of course!), pineapple, banana, mango, rambutan, watermelon, cempedak, ciku and mangosteen, among others.
There are also over 70 species of fruits that are either planted or grow wild in jungles, neighbourhood lawns or orchards without much cultivation or care.
These are local fruits that were once prevalent in Malaysian diets of yore but have since either fallen out of favour or become obsolete.
Examples of these fruits include setar, salak, mentega, nam nam, bacang, nona kapri, cermai, rambai, keranji, sentul, ceri Terengganu, bidara, kasai, kuning telur and pala.
If you’re looking at this list wondering why you’ve never heard of – much less eaten – any of these fruits, well, it’s an indication of how rapidly things have changed.
Lifestyle changes, for example, have been a driving force in evolving fruit consumption patterns.
In the past, money was tighter in most local households which meant many people simply opted for low-hanging fruit i.e. whatever was most accessible in villages and neighbourhoods.
“When I was small, I crossed two villages to walk to school in Melaka. And on the way back, my friends and I were often hungry, so we would stop and ask the villagers if we could eat the fruits on their trees – that’s how I learnt about local fruits,” says Rukayah.
“In reality, back then we had no choice because as children in the village, we didn’t have much money to buy fruits in the shops so we ate anything that grew in the village,” she adds.
These days, both Rukayah and Aziz agree that the appetite and purchasing power for imported fruits like blueberries and cherries has surged, in many instances to the detriment of long-standing local fruits.
“There are so many imported fruits from the West, so we’re used to eating those kinds of fruits, which is not right. That is the main reason some of these local fruits are nearly extinct,” reasons Rukayah.
She is certainly not wrong. Imported fruits from countries like Australia are becoming increasingly popular. In fact, according to data provided by Australian trade body Austrade, the export volume for peaches, nectarines and apricots from Australia to Malaysia increased by over 200% between 2013 to 2018 while overall fresh fruit export to Malaysia shot up by 35% in the same period.
While the consumption of imported fruits has little impact on popular local fruits like durians and bananas, the effect on a fruit like binjai can be more far-reaching.
“Binjai is very rare and it takes 20 years to fruit. Who wants to grow it? It has no commercial value and you have to wait for it, while imported fruits are easily available in supermarkets,” says Aziz.
The widespread clearing of land for development throughout the country is also another reason many of these fruits are being wiped out.
“Before in the kampung, you had a house and a lot of trees, so many of the seeds were spread by birds and animals – nobody really went out of their way to plant them,” says Aziz.
In modern times, what was once an organic growing method doesn’t necessarily translate anymore as many areas that were previously fecund and surrounded by foliage have now given way to the trappings of progress.
“In Melaka, for instance, there were about 15 binjai plants around the city when I was working on the book over a decade ago. And now, I think there are maybe four trees there. The rest have given way to housing and other development,” laments Rukayah.
Then there is the taste factor. While many of these local fruits are quite sweet – like rokam manis, buah mentega and kuning telur – others – like nam nam and mundu – are decidedly sour and difficult to eat fresh.
“Some of these fruits need to be made into a pickle. And some of them you have to eat with salt to counteract the sourness,” admits Aziz.
This means that younger people used to sweet fruits like mangoes and bananas don’t necessarily know how to appreciate these fruits or, more importantly – simply don’t want to when other options are available.
“One thing about the younger generation – they are not exposed to these fruits. So whether it is sweet or sour, they won’t easily try the fruits or are not eager to, even if they can find them,” says Rukayah.
Given all these reasons and so many more (e.g. many of the fruits are difficult to grow on a commercial scale), it isn’t a stretch to discover that some local fruits are completely extinct with others in danger of being wiped out very soon.
“There is one species that is completely lost – lanjut. You just can’t find it in villages anymore – I would say it is gone forever. And I think the next fruit that is close to being phased out is binjai, which is becoming very rare,” says Rukayah.
Despite waning interest in these fruits, Aziz is determined to continue collecting them and still travels around the country looking for different local species.
“The difficulty is to locate the trees which are fruiting, because you have to go during the fruiting season to collect the fruit.
“And then some trees are so high that you just cannot get the fruit; you have to wait until it drops and by the time it drops, the wild boar has eaten it already so it’s quite difficult,” says Aziz laughing.
Rukayah has also done her part to impart more information about these fruits through her book as well as an arboretum that she was instrumental in putting together when she was in Mardi.
Although the arboretum once contained between 70 to 80 local rare fruit species, unfortunately, about 1/3 has been lost, as the fruit trees had to make way for the Mass Rapid Transit project.
Still, given that she spent most of her career writing about and researching rare local fruits, it isn’t surprising to learn that she has planted many of these species – like rambai, jentik-jentik and nam nam – at her own home.
Rukayah says that if people are able to find fresh versions of these more unusual local fruits, they are actually very easy to grow.
“I use the seeds to plant the trees and it’s very easy. One thing about our tropical seeds – they cannot be kept very long and tend to lose moisture easily, so if you eat any fruit, you must sow the seed immediately,” she advises.
Ultimately though, Aziz and Rukayah say it is up to them and people of their generation familiar with these fruits to pass down this knowledge about traditional fruits to younger audiences, otherwise both the knowledge and the fruits themselves will eventually disappear altogether.
“I think it is up to the older generation to educate younger people and get them interested in whatever way possible to understand the uniqueness of local fruits,” says Aziz with conviction.