How could we resist this enormous, never-before-seen (by us) brilliant orange specimen? Although we expected its hefty weight, we were startled by the pliability of its skin: it was a bit like holding a thick, lumpy water balloon. Once home, we sliced into the fruit’s core and were shocked by the pile of grotesqueness that spilled out onto the cutting board. What looked at first glance like a mass of demon hearts turned out to be gigantic black seeds covered in a glistening bright red substance. The seeds’ red coating had a consistency similar to flan and a flavor that reminded us of coffee dregs, only milder. The fruit’s flesh was like a melon in texture but unpleasantly bitter (so that got spat out right quick).
We were stumped for how to apply any part of the fruit to culinary purposes, and since we still didn’t know its name, we couldn’t yet use Google to guide us. We posed the question to the Da Nang Expats Facebook page and immediately received scads of replies (thanks everyone!). The fruit’s Vietnamese name is Quả Gấc, typically referred to by Westerners as Gac Fruit. Reportedly, Quả Gấc is grown throughout Southeast Asia and parts of China as an ornamental vine due to the fruits’ beautiful color. In Vietnam, the fruit is primarily harvested in December and January in anticipation of its demand for Xôi Gấc, a specialty dish served during the annual Tết holiday. In this recipe, the Quả Gấc’s interior red goop (that’s the technical term of course) is scraped away from its seeds then blended into sticky rice which adds a warm orange hue to the meal. It’s also sometimes used as a natural substitute for artificial red food coloring in icings and cakes. For medicinal applications, Gac Fruit contains abundant antioxidants. It has 10x more beta carotene than carrots and 70x more lycopene than tomatoes! We read that it’s recommended for treating eye conditions, burns, skin problems, and wounds and that Gac Fruit extracts can now be found in supplement products in the US.
We confess that we gave away our Quả Gấc rather than experiment with potential recipes since it was a busy work week, but it’s something we’ll consider trying again next month in February when we’ll experience our first Tết holiday in Vietnam!