Sunday, April 26, 2009


Longan translates phonetically to "dragon eyes" in Cantonese and Vietnamese and "cat eyes" in a few other Southeast Asian languages. At first one might think this is due to the rough, mottled exterior of this little fruit but the secret to the name lies within. Rarely seen within the US, I was fortunate enough to encounter these strange little fruits on a recent visit to a local flea market where there are a few great stalls featuring some exotic Asian produce.

longan bunch

A member of the Sapindaceae family of trees, longans are relatives of lychees and rambutans. They are grown in the same Southeast Asian lands as their cousins but their origins have been traced to the southern region of China, a bit further north than the fertile tropical breeding grounds of their family members.

longan in hand

The longan doesn't appear edible at first glance. It isn't until you squeeze these tough looking orbs that you start to suspect there might be some viable fruit inside. Peeling back the skin is much like peeling a lychee or a hard-boiled egg. The rind is thick but pliable and breaks off to reveal the dragon's eye inside. The flesh is veined and translucent with a dark seed embedded in its center, giving the appearance of an eyeball, hence the name.

longan open

The taste of the translucent longan flesh is a little strange. Whereas the flavors of the lychee and rambutan are wholly sweet and floral, there's a mild tang in the longan. One could aptly describe it as being like a lychee with a hint of sweet onion. Not bad, but this odd note dampened my enthusiasm about finishing the rest of the bunch.

longan flesh

There are some bumpier varieties but mine was essentially smooth with some slight texturing. The minor pickled-onion flavor puts me off wanting to make them a regular part of my repertoire but since my beloved rambutans and lychees are far more expensive, I might be forced to pick up some more of these little snack sized fruits on my next trip to the market.

longan seed

Then again, if I can get one of these to produce a fruit-bearing tree in a reasonable amount of time, I might just have to get used to the idea of onion flavored fruit.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Red Bull Cola

"Cola? Really? Is he really at such a loss for ideas?"

No, I have plenty of ideas... and plenty of good subjects lined up for when I can scrape together enough time to write about them. So stay tuned for more excitement!

Right now I just ask that you humor me for a bit.

red bull cola

It wasn't my intention to educate you about the oddness that is cola and this still isn't my primary aim, but the fact of the matter is that cola is undeniably strange. It's like the chai of soft drinks, a sweetened infusion of exotic ingredients. Sugar and spice and everything nice. And looking at the cola consumption amongst the youth of today, I'd concur that it is indeed what little girls are made of. As for the snakes and snails and puppy dogs' tails bollocks, I for one have never eaten and will never eat a dog's tail (outside of a nuclear holocaust) so I call into question the validity of that ancient assessment of little boys.

Cola is named for the kola nut, the seed pod of a number of species of African trees that are close relatives to the godly South American cacao tree. The kola nut, like its cousin, contains caffeine and it is for this very reason (and also perhaps because it has euphoric qualities) that its bitter extract has long been used as an additive to soft drinks. However, it is reported that these days many of the major cola companies use an artificial kola flavor and crush up generic No-Doz for the caffeine.

Fun Questionable Fact: Most pure, isolated caffeine found in your favorite alertness pills and energy drinks is a byproduct of the decaffeination of coffee and tea.

red bull cola

So why write about Red Bull Cola? Go to the store, or our kitchen, and read the ingredient lists on the back of any major cola brand. You're bound to see something like this:


What the hell does all of that mean? What are natural flavors? Here's what the FDA has to say about that from their Code of Federal Regulations:

The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional...

Through additional rules and regulations, there is no requirement to list the foods from which these flavors are derived. But the recently released Red Bull Cola is one of the few brands of cola that proudly flaunts all flavor constituents on the label and therefore, despite my typical blanket avoidance of soft drinks, I was compelled to purchase a pack for private experimentation after a quick skim through the ingredients. So let's read through them, shall we:

Water, Sugar, Carbon Dioxide, Caramel...

So far this is pretty standard...


Ok, that's a strange one. Galangal is a root with what is described as an earthy citrus flavor with hints of pine and soap. It's used in Chinese medicine as a stimulant and aphrodisiac. Odd, but that's not what got my attention...

...Vanilla, Mustard Seed, Lime, Kola Nut, Cacao, Licorice, Cinnamon, Lemon, Ginger, Coca Leaf...

Coca leaf? Coca leaf! The scourge of the modern world, primary ingredient in Coca Tea and source of the dreaded compound cocaine (from which novocaine and many other incredibly useful painkillers were derived). No wonder Red Bull gives you wings.

red bull cola

Well, the coca leaves are, of course, decocainized but here we all thought that colas no longer used such ingredients. We've been taught to believe that the cocaine in early versions of Coca Cola was a myth. Turns out they still use coca leaves in their flavoring as well. We've also been taught that the USA has a blanket policy barring the import of this despicable vegetation. As it happens, the unprocessed leaves are imported and then the cocaine is removed in domestic factories. So, in essence, the USA is the largest importer and processor of coca leaves in the world. And like the processes used to decaffeinate coffee beans and tea leaves that result in the production of pure caffeine that is used in pills, drinks, and other stimulating foods, cocaine is undoubtedly a byproduct of the decocainization process. So what happens to it all? What indeed...

But let's finish up on these ingredients:

...Orange, Corn Mint, Pine...

As in pine tree? Isn't that crap poisonous?

...Cardamom, Mace, Clove, Lemon Juice concentrate, Caffeine from Coffee Beans

What a strange cocktail of exotic spices, the most surprising of all being the coca leaf, and it just happens to be the most popular drink in the world. But there's potentially a more sinister side to it all beyond the multinational/globalization issue that people are always up in arms about. It seems as though the cola industry might be supporting the drug trade. Them and the bakers of poppy seed muffins. Madness.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Meyer Lemon

The graphical depiction of my childhood would be sunny and surreal, filled with dry thunderstorms, fires, floods, and ferocious fauna. It would also taste like lemons. You see, I grew up with a lemon tree in the backyard and, as a consequence, I ate a lot of lemons. Yes, ate, I ate them. In fact, I don't really recall drinking much of what is called lemonade in the US although I sucked plenty of juice out of raw lemons pulled off the tree. But in these circumstances where one experiences beautiful, fresh fruit straight from the plant, one also encounters the spoiled specimens. I was forever stepping on rotten lemons, feeling their brown, leathery exterior give way to the rancid juice inside. Naturally, being lemon-scented rot, the off-lemon doesn't smell as bad as most decaying vegetation but they don't smell very nice either. Our dogs would frequently attempt to eat the fallen lemons and then, as happened every time, vomit a yellow foam in the garden which you would also inevitably find yourself stepping in.

meyer lemon

As I sit here thinking about my past I realize that my mind categorizes lemons in a strange way. Having shared an intimate connection with this fruit I hold them in a sacred, high regard but, by that very same token, I completely take them for granted. I don't think I've ever bought a lemon and I don't feel I should have to buy them. Instead I should be able to walk into my backyard and pluck one from a tree. But alas, the tree is no more... chopped down a long time ago in a land far away.

lemon addition

My non-commercial pact with the lemon was slightly broken when I encountered the Meyer lemon at a local grocery store. The smooth skin and darker tone told me that this was no ordinary lemon which left me both intrigued and slightly affronted. It turns out that the Meyer lemon is a hybrid between a regular lemon and a mandarin, from which it gets its smooth skin and darker hue.

I typically don't do much research about the strange foods in this blog before I consume them so that can approach them with as little bias as possible (fortunately, I violated this self-imposed ignorance before tackling the Cherimoya and spared myself the inconvenience of paralysis or death). So it was out of character for me to do some reading about the Meyer lemon prior to consuming it because, despite my long history of raw lemon consumption, I didn't want to eat the whole thing and figured I could find a few interesting ideas to try.

meyer lemon cut

I hit jackpot when I found an online article from the Los Angeles Times boasting 100 things to do with a Meyer lemon. With so many to choose from, I figured I'd be set so I proceeded to photograph and dissect my specimin.

I had every intention of exploring some of the articles suggestions but after my first bite I abandoned all plans.

Yes, the fragrance was sweet and so was the taste but it was strangely sour as well. Strange because I don't mean a typical lemon sour; that tart, lip puckering taste we've all , but sour in a rotten way.

meyer lemon cut close

Memories of dead lemons and yellow dog vomit came flooding back. I forced another couple bites in a vain attempt to acclimate myself to the taste and then tipped the copious remains into the trash.

Despite the bad experience, my interest has been piqued about what other hybridized lemons are out there but this one won't be entering my shopping basket again.