Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Fruit Taxonomy

Growing up in the Cunningham house, at the bottom of your Christmas stocking you would always find an apple, an orange, and an assortment of nuts.  Anna and I got our stockings in the mail from my mother, and sure enough the nuts were at the bottom.  The orange and apple probably wouldn't have made the trip, but not to worry they are sold on the street.  The local variety of oranges are actually green on the outside; orange colored oranges are for sale but expensive because they are shipped here internationally as well as all apples.  There are also a whole swath of new fruits that we have found, some great and others not so much.  I thought maybe you might like to see a few pictures and names of those others that are unfamiliar to you.

Sourpatch Kids TM fruit or zaban

Sourpatch Kids TM fruit opened
The first is my personal favorite naturally because it tastes surprisingly like candy.  This one grows on a vine out in the bush, nobody I know really cultivates it, they just go out and collect when they are in season.  The outside is pretty ugly and inedible, and with a little pressure it pops right open revealing the fleshy seeds that are so good.  I recommend sprinkling a little sugar on this one, as the sourness can be overwhelming.

Cucumber/cantaloupe melon or moussa melon
Cucumber/cantaloupe melon opened
Next we have the refreshing and bizarre moussa melon.  This tastes exactly like a cross between a cuke and a cantalope.  They are easy to grow here I realized when many of them appeared growing big healthy vines from the seeds I threw in the compost pile.  According to people in village a former Malian president Moussa Traore found these on a trip to Morocco many years ago and brought them back to this country because he liked them so much.

Shea fruit
Shea fruit opened
Shea fruit nut
When I used to see American hand soap or lotion that was "made with shea butter" I always wondered, "what IS that anyway?"  This mystery was solved when some vendors boarded a bus I was taking here in Mali selling bags of little green fruit.  Shea fruit are edible, and taste a little like a sweet avocado with a similar texture.  There is not much fruit on the outsite, and inside is a big nut.  Apparently if you crack that nut the kernel inside can be processed to extract oil which is where the butter comes in.  This stuff is internationally known to work wonders for skin and hair.  There are not many of these trees in our village, so we don't really see these much outside of traveling.  This oil can also be used to make food which gives whatever you are eating an indescribable and I think foul taste, I found this out the hard way while visiting our buddy Rob's village where they use it to make everything.

Custard apple or tubab soonsoon
Custard apple opened
The English word for this one actually is custard apple, look it up.  In Bambara, soonsoon trees come in two varieties tubab and regular.  The regular variety are found everywhere, I have never seen these trees produce any fruit although they have nice shade.  The tubab (word for white person, sometimes used to refer to French people only) variety are more rare and smaller, but have these really great tasting fruit.  Malians were really surprised that I had never seen these fruit because they said that we tubabs brought these trees to Mali.  You cannot eat the outside, but like the Sourpatch Kids TM fruit a little pressure and these pop open.  The flesh is soft, sweet, and tropical tasting.  Below you can see a sapling of this tree that was planted in our yard (not the worlds' most fertile soil...).  Unfortunately it will not produce fruit until year 3 which will find us back in the ol' US of A.  On a side note, to the volunteer who lives in our house starting in 2013, please mail me a check for all of the delicious fruit that you will eat as a result of my planting and my daily water hauling.
Custard apple sapling in our yard

Smelly feet cherries or ziziphus fruit
Smelly feet cherry inside view
These little guys look like cherries or crab apples, but have a taste that I think is entirely different.  This is wildly popular fruit here, and relatively expensive here as they usually come from a grafted tree.  Some of our friends, American and Malian, really like them and say they taste similar to an apple.  I would agree with them on the apple part, but I am not the I LIKE THESE club, as I think they have a weird dirty sock/smelly cheese aftertaste.

Donkey chewing gum fruit or sebey
Cooked bowl of donkey chewing gum fruit
This next one grows on a palm tree and has big fruits that look like squash.  In order to eat it, you need to boil it for the better part of a day.  I really like this one.  It is stringy, and you chew it until the flavor is gone then spit out the stringy stuff.  This one is also hard to explain and really sweet with a bitter aftertaste.  Anna and many others really don't like it.  The Malian nickname for this one in donkey chewing gum, because they also like it.

Cat food fruit or zimini
Last and least of all we have the rock hard, dry cat food fruit.  These also grow on palm trees and ripen in bunches.  Kids slingshot rocks at them to get them out of the tree if they don't drop.  Kids gnaw on the fruit which are only edible in a little layer on the outside.  I tried these twice and thought it tasted like cat food, I say this with confidence because of some childhood taste-testing with cat food done by my sister Liz and I.

Green pepper from our yard
This guy doesn't belong, but I am happy to report that my green pepper, jalapeno, cherry tomato, and basil plants are all producing.  Our friend Miriam says they look like doll house vegetables, but hey at least they're there.

Merry Christmas from Mali.  We are enjoying a week in Segou, including two nights at a hotel.  A fellow volunteer down the road had her whole family visiting and we tagged along with them on Christmas day.


  1. Wow! What an excellent documentary on the local edibles. Pretty fascinating. You both are so adaptable, since you seem willing to eat so many new & unusual things.

    Gary & I think of you and pray for you often. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and God's Blessings as your take on the tasks of each new day. much love from Wisconsin. (P.S. Ok, when I want to complain about our cold weather - 20 degrees and windy, I guess I should remind myself about your temperatures that are well over 100 degrees! Unreal.)Grace

  2. Brilliant! Love the Taxonomy post Geo.


  3. About eating cat food: It was roughly from the same stage where we tied individual pieces of cat food to strings and lured Luigi out from under the bed in the back bedroom with it and called this "cat fishing."
    Fairly experimental phase...
    Sam ate some ants, comparing the taste of black and red ones because our cousin Tony told him the red ones were sour.

    Could be worse George.

  4. This is an awesome blog! I was just having a conversation with someone trying to remember all the fruits I ate while living in Mali, and I stumbled across your blog in a google search for zaban :)

    Good luck in your travels. I miss Mali with all my heart and I wish I could be there too.