I never know what I’ll discover on trips to Chinatown. On recent visits there have been lychee, longan (dragon eye), rambutans, mangosteens, mangoes, and dragon fruit. This week I was pleased to see the durian vendor was back. As I was admiring him segmenting the fruit into plastic containers, I heard a woman excitedly say in Cantonese, “I haven’t seen wampee in over 30 years!” That’s when I noticed that the other fruit the vendor was selling wasn’t longan. It was something I’d never seen before that had the look of longan, but was smaller with thin skin and fine hairs.
In Cantonese the fruit is called huang pei. At $10 a pound I hesitated a moment and then thought about how thrilled the customer was, and I decided I couldn’t miss this experience. I remember when I was a child, the day my mom discovered water spinach in San Francisco’s Chinatown. She hadn’t had it in over 25 years. That night she stir-fried it with fermented bean curd and ate every bite in a state of bliss that clearly transported her back to China.
I consulted my reference book “Fruit as Medicine” by Dai Yin-Fang, which says wild wampee has a warm nature, it invigorates the stomach and spleen, and stops coughing. It also “rejuvenates the flow of vital energy and eases pain.” Fascinated I peeled the thin skin which is very labor intensive. Every fruit has a few pale yellow-green, flat seeds and the flesh looks like a green grape. There isn’t a lot of flesh to eat in the tiny fruit. A quick check on the internet informed me it’s grown in Southern China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. Whether or not it “rejuvenates my vital energy,” I was amazed and delighted by the unusual sweet, exotic taste. I’m feeling lucky that I eavesdropped at the durian stand.