During a visit to the Philippines a few years ago, I asked a cousin, who was an agricultural extension officer, if he could give me a sapling of a banana I had been craving for a long time. A plaintain locally known as saba, it is as common in the Philippines as the kluay namwa is in Thailand.
SEEMS FAMILIAR: ‘Saba’, top, becoming overripe. When unripe the saba looks like the Thai ‘kluay namwa’.
Most Filipinos grow up eating it in many ways _ as fresh fruit, boiled, fried, cooked in syrup and eaten with crushed ice, fried and dipped in caramel, and skewered and barbecued (Filipinos call it "banana cue"), or cooked with fish, pork or beef and assorted vegetables, among other ways.
I had lived in Thailand for decades but I could not find it here, so I had wanted to bring a sapling home to plant. "I could do better than that," my cousin said. "We have a new variety and it happens to have several pups [saplings] ready to be transplanted. It bears longer bunches of fruit, with more hands per bunch, than most varieties."
I brought the sapling home, had it planted on the farm and waited for it to bear fruit.
After one year it blossomed, and the plant itself was surrounded by five pups, which meant that I would have a steady supply of saba.
Several months passed. During a visit to the farm, I asked the caretaker where my banana was. I thought I knew where it was planted, but the one standing there, with its long bunch of fruit ready to be harvested, was a kluay namwa.
Following the caretaker's assertions that it was the same plant I brought back from the Philippines, it dawned on me that my cousin gave me what he thought was the best variety he could find, without realising that it originated in Thailand.
I was reminded of that banana episode when, during my last visit to the Philippines, I gave two mango saplings to another cousin who is a keen gardener. "That's the newest variety of mango in Thailand," I told him. "Each fruit weighs about a kilogramme, and it is crunchy and sweet, especially when it is almost ripe."
My cousin had eagerly showed me a Bangkok santol he had bought as a sapling and was now a big tree, so I thought he would be excited to have a Thai mango, too. "We have had that for a long time," he said nonchalantly. "It originated in Davao."
Did someone bring it back from Thailand to Davao and propagate it until it spread in the Philippines, with everyone thinking it originated in Davao? But this variety of mango became available in Thailand not so long ago, so my cousin's claim could be true.
Could it be that someone had actually introduced the mango into Thailand from the Philippines but did not say its country of origin so everyone thought it was a Thai cultivar? Or are we talking about two different varieties of giant mango altogether?
Plants have crossed borders for centuries. Spanish explorers brought back to Spain countless species they had collected in the Americas, then known as the New World, and some of these species, such as the pineapple, were brought to the Philippines by Spanish colonisers in the 16th century. Travellers then spread these plants to other countries in the region. By the same token, traders from India and the Middle East who sailed into old Siam's capital of Ayutthaya brought fruit whose seeds rooted in this country and the plants then spread throughout the region.
Many plant species thought to be native to Indonesia were in fact brought there by Dutch colonisers.
Many foreign plant species have been grown in the country so long that they have become naturalised. Both the Thai national tree, the rachapruek (Cassia fistula), and the Philippine national flower, the sampaguita (Jasminum sambac), are naturalised species, for example. Where a tree or plant originated is not important, however. What is important is that plant lovers get to enjoy species from various parts of the world, and as long as there are travellers we will continue to enjoy many foreign plants in our gardens.
I am not sure how the saba finally reached Thailand's shores, but I found out later that it was in fact available here. A friend who chanced upon an Otop fair at Chatuchak saw both the fruit and the tree being sold at a booth of products from Yala. Not so long ago, at a plant fair in Chon Buri, it was among 250 species of bananas whose saplings were for sale. In Thai it is called kluay hin, but it is not widely grown, so few Thais are familiar with this type of banana, which looks like the kluay namwa when unripe but rectangular in shape instead of round.
What's more, some of my favourite fruits when I was a child are now available here. Sometimes I get to eat star apple, or caimito (Chrysophyllum cainito) brought home by the man of the house, ML Charuphant, and once in a while I chance upon chiesa or a canistel or egg fruit (Pouteria campechiana), known in Thai as lamut khamen, at Klong Toey market.
Both are locally grown if not yet widespread, so now I no longer have to pine for them, and besides, I now have my own trees. They are not bearing fruit yet, but for the past year or two my soursop tree (Annona muricata), has given me some fruit to write home about.
GREW TO LIKE IT HERE: The Thai national tree, ‘Cassia fistula’, or ‘rachapruek’, is a naturalised species.
About the author
- Writer: Normita Thongtham