While I like to think of myself as a Fearless Eater, blithely scooping the unknown and untried into my market basket and then my mouth, the truth is I am pretty chicken-hearted. And although I’ve never fancied myself a second Anthony Bourdain, lustily chowing down on blood soup and fried worms, I did feel intrepid faced with fruits and veggies. Back in North Carolina it was easy to imagine mercados (markets) filled with tropical produce that I would seize upon and cook with gusto.
However, confronted here in the Azuero with an actual, hard, round, green object decorated with knobs, which I have no idea how to prepare – or even whether it is ripe – that same imagination tends to falter.
Not long ago I mustered my nerve and bought a strange fruit – hard, round and green, but knobless, from a basket piled high with them at a grocery store here. The pile was shrinking as I watched. Other shoppers were choosing the perfect globe and carrying off their trophies. The produce man assured me the fruit was delicious and sweet. Aha! Two types of ‘social proof,’ thought I. THIS fruit would be good!
I guess mine wasn’t ripe, because the tiny slice I dared was bitter and juiceless.
Another time I found a weird but innocent-looking fruit at a roadside stand. The vendor said she didn’t know what it was for sure, but she thought it was called Fruta de Tete (Titty Fruit). It did have a distinctive shape. I bought one, to try. But, alas, my nerve spoiled and then so did the fruit.
I blame part of this on information overload from the internet. In touring some of the websites that illustrate exotic fruits and veggies, I ran across a few items accompanied by proclamations like “While the fruit is delicious, the seeds are poisonous. A mere five can kill a 200 pound man.” And how about that write-up on the ‘bat nut’ – a brownish black, winged-looking seed thingie. Not all, but some (SOME! WHICH ONES?) contain the eggs of a dreadful parasite that will writhe its way into your intestines and eventually destroy you.
I am a lot less timid in restaurants. I figure they probably want my business more than once, so they won’t be deliberately giving me a dish of The Seeds That Kill. Unfortunately, here in the Azuero, a restaurant customer seldom sees a fruit or a vegetable other than a cooked carrot or potato or some yucca in soup. You might get a salad, predictably one slice of tomato, maybe a slice of cucumber (but never more than one) and two small lettuce leaves. With some vinegar. Oh, but wait! How could I forget the ubiquitous patacones (slices of fried plantain) which I actually love, or the mandatory lentils?
And there is a truly delicious Panamanian Potato Salad, sometimes made with beets in it. But potatoes don’t meet my criteria for adventurous, even mixed with beets.
I need to man-up and buy some of those knobbed green things.
No. I need cooking lessons from a Panamanian friend.