It’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 some languages, while in others, the common name finds its roots in the Latin genus name. In northern Việt Nam, mãng cầu is called”na”, possibly from the genus name Annona.
Another 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 hard shiny black seeds to spit out, and the fruit is juicier and messier to eat.
The custard apple, mãng cầu, is one of four symbolic fruits offered to the ancestors for Tết. 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”.