M is for Mãng Cầu (Custard Apple)

imageIt’s mãng cầu seaon in Huế right now. I spotted these ones next to a pile of bright pink dragon fruit at the market. My mother-in-law knows how much I like to eat them, and often buys them in threes just for me. She tells me to hide them before someone else eats them up.

This fruit, Annona squamosa, called sweetsop or custard apple in English, originated in the West Indies and tropical Americas. An old Mexican name, ate, is still reflected in the fruit’s name in several Asian languages, while in others, the common name obviously finds its roots in the Latin genus name. In northern Việt Nam, mãng cầu is called”na”, possibly from the genus name Annona. 

imageAnother species of Annona, A. muricata, is called  mãng cầu xiêm, and friends have explained that the word xiêm comes from Xiêm La, meaning Siam. Its English name is soursop. The flesh is similar, but there are many more of the hard shiny black seeds to spit out, and the fruit is juicier and messier to eat.

image

The custard apple, mãng cầu, is one of four symbolic fruits  offered to the ancestors for Tết, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. The others are coconut or dừa, papaya or đu đủ and mango or xoài. With a little word play, these words take on new meanings. Mãng cầu implies cầu, to pray. The word for coconut, dừa, sounds like the southern pronunciation of vừa, meaning “just right”. The second of the two syllables for papaya, đủ, means “enough” when used on its own. The word for mango, xoài, sounds a lot like “xài”, especially when spoken with a southern accent, and xài means “to spend / to use.”

Put together, the words form the phrase “cầu vừa đủ xài” – “We pray for just enough to use”.

 

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About Chris

Chris Galvin is a Canadian writer, editor and photographer dividing her time between Canada and Viet Nam. Her essay Flood Season was a finalist for the 2012 Best of the Net prize, and Discovering Hến Rice in Central Việt Nam won third place (shared) and a Readers’ Choice Award in the 2015 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest. Her work has appeared in various anthologies and literary journals, including Descant, Asian Cha, PRISM International, Room, and others. She has written in Vietnamese and English for Vietnam Tourism Review/Kham Pha Du Lich Vietnam Magazine, Travellive, and Du Lich Giai Tri. Chris is currently looking for a home for her recently completed manuscript, Breakfast Under the Bodhi Tree, a book about living, eating, and tour-guiding in Viet Nam.
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10 Responses to M is for Mãng Cầu (Custard Apple)

  1. Erin says:

    I sometimes see these in the local (upscale) supermarket, but I’ve never tried them. Might have to do that.

    I’m confused at the last paragraph, however, because you say “five fruits,” but I’m only counting four: custard apple, coconut, papaya, and mango. (Which sounds like a wonderful fruit salad, by the way.) I love the phrase/prayer.

  2. Karen Zey says:

    Your photo of the dragon fruit and custard apples – the festive colours and nubby shapes are a feast for the eyes and beckon us to read on.

  3. D. D. Syrdal says:

    So many wonderful foods in the world, and my local supermarkets have such paltry selections. Drives me crazy! There are some Asian groceries around that I need to venture into.

  4. Jennifer says:

    These look alien and beautiful ! Love your description of how the words all play with each other. Do they taste at all anything else that might be familiar to North Americans?

    • Chris says:

      Alien and beautiful . . . I love that! The same can be said of so many tropical fruits. Hard to describe what they taste like. Very mild, fragrant, and mildly sweet. The flesh is juicy in a lightly creamy way. The fruit is made of little sections, teardrop shaped, most containing a shiny black seed each. The flesh and seed separate easily, and we spit out the seeds the same way one does when eating watermelon.

  5. I haven’t seen them in shops here, but we could buy them in Madeira and the hotel often had them in the fresh fruit section of their buffet. They have quite a delicate taste and the flesh is soft rather than crunchy like an apple. Interesting to look at though, as is the dragon fruit which I’ve never tasted.

  6. Think I’m gonna give this a try when I see it in Vietnam.
    Thanks for sharing (:

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