INTERACTIVE: Rediscovering Malaysia’s forgotten fruits

PETALING JAYA: Fancy a nam-nam, abiu and keriang? Don’t worry if you have never heard of them – Malaysia is home to more than 300 species of fruits that are no longer familiar to many of us, especially the younger generation.

According to the Agriculture Department, there are about 370 species of cultivated and wild fruits in the country, of which 16 have been classified as major fruit crops such as durian, pineapples and bananas.

The rest are classified as buah-buahan nadir (rare fruits), which is defined as fruits that are not commonly grown commercially and have become harder to find.

“Most rare fruits are found at the edge of forests and jungles or in villages and are planted in small quantities,” said the department’s plant industry development division officer Fazlisyam Md Isa.

“Some of these fruits are seasonal, while others can be found only once every two to three years.”

There are three types of rare fruits in the country. First are those found in Peninsular Malaysia such as cerapu, keriang and sapukaya; while second are exotic fruits introduced from other countries.

Third are the rare fruits of Sabah and Sarawak such as belimbing hutan, mundu and bambangan.

Marketing rare fruits can be tough since they are not a familiar sight to consumers.

“When some people see what a rare fruit looks like, they often don’t find it appealing.

“Since they don’t know much about the fruit, they don’t want to taste it,” Fazlisyam said in an interview on the sidelines of the recent Malaysia Agriculture, Horticulture and Agro-tourism Expo (Maha) 2022.

Agriculture Department’s plant industry development division officer Fazlisyam Md IsaAgriculture Department’s plant industry development division officer Fazlisyam Md Isa

Some of Malaysia’s rare and forgotten fruits may appear unappealing, but they are ripe for rediscovery.

Most, if not all, have hidden health benefits. According to the department, mundu fruit, for example, contains vitamin A and anti-oxidants.

The kundur fruit, meanwhile, is said to be able to help reduce the risk of a heart attack and to relieve sore throats.

Kundur fruit on display at Maha's rare fruit exhibition. Kundur fruit on display at Maha's rare fruit exhibition.

Some rare fruits aren’t as sweet as their more widely available competitors, which is another likely reason many have been lost to the ravages of time.

Fazlisyam said some rare fruits cannot be eaten raw.

“When it is eaten fresh, it is less tasty as it is often sour, bitter or has a buttery taste.

“Consumers generally prefer fruits that are sweet, and this is among the main reasons why these fruits are forgotten.

“To be commercialised, these fruits would need to be processed – into fruit juice, for example – so that they are tastier.”

The department has two facilities that house fruit plant samples so that government agencies and universities can conduct research on such rare fruits.

They are located at the Agriculture Complex in Serdang, Selangor and Agricultural Centre in Hulu Paka, Terengganu.

The Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi) also does research on these fruits to learn more about their nutritional values and commercial potential.

Perbadanan Putrajaya is another agency that tries to do its part to promote rare fruits.

“Various types of rare fruit tree species have been planted around Putrajaya, especially in the Botanic Gardens and Putrajaya Agricultural Heritage Park,” said Fazlisyam.

Through such efforts, some rare fruits such soursop (durian belanda), salak and abiu have become more familiar.

“The bacang fruit, for example, is now more commercialised, as there are new varieties of the fruit that are sweeter.

“The sentul and kundang also have many new varieties – some of their better breeds are brought in from Thailand as they produce larger and tastier fruits,” he added.

Rare fruits used to be eaten in many different ways back when they were more common. For some people, they are still a familiar ingredient in meals.

“Fruits like ara lempung can be cooked and added to meat curry dishes, as is done in some east coast states in the peninsula.

“Others can be mixed together when cooking to get a sour taste such as asam gelugur, bilimbi (belimbing buloh) and the button mangosteen (cerapu),” said Fazlisyam.

There are also rare fruits that are often used as side dishes, such as jering and kerdas.

“The melaka and asam gelugur fruits are meanwhile used to make healthy fruit juices, while the dabai fruit – which is more familiar in Sabah and Sarawak – is often used to make hot sauce (sambal),” he added.

Agro-entrepreneurs are also doing their bit to revive consumer interest in rare fruits.

Che Mazura Mohd, who sells breadfruit (buah sukun) among others, said the fruit is mainly grown in Johor.

Sukun fruit, which were brought in from a farm in Johor, were sold at RM13 per kg at Maha 2022. Sukun fruit, which were brought in from a farm in Johor, were sold at RM13 per kg at Maha 2022.

“There are farms everywhere but not large commercial ones. Not many people grow these types of fruit plants,” said the 39-year-old.

She added that in the past, breadfruit was only planted in villages but recently, it has become more commercialised.

“It used to be planted at each house in the village but this is no longer the practice,” she said.

She also sells keranji or damak, which is considered a forest fruit.

“We also sell keranji but its produce is very rare. The fruit is hard to harvest as the tree is too tall and its trunk is very large,” she said.

Then there is Syazwani Liyana Abd Ghani, who mainly cultivates bananas plants, but she plants other fruits that can be harvested while waiting for her banana crop to bear fruit at her farm in Banting, Selangor.

Sasa Grow Fruit Farm agropreneurs Syazwani Liyana Abd Ghani (right) and Nur Zakinah Sahar.Sasa Grow Fruit Farm agropreneurs Syazwani Liyana Abd Ghani (right) and Nur Zakinah Sahar.

These includes rare fruits such as passion fruit.

“It takes two to three months for the plant to bear fruit depending on the weather, but we are then able to harvest almost every day.

“The passion fruit plants cannot thrive during the rainy season as its roots cannot be submerged in water,” she said.

Passion fruit, grown in Banting, Selangor, were sold at RM13 per kg at Maha 2022.Passion fruit, grown in Banting, Selangor, were sold at RM13 per kg at Maha 2022.

She added that her passion fruit is popular among Chinese buyers, many of whom can identify how sweet a fruit is by its appearance.

“The more wrinkled and ‘ugly’ the fruit looks, the sweeter it usually is,” she said.

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