It is 6:30 a.m., and my dad wakes me up with his classic, “Start waking up, honey.” We are in Hanoi, Vietnam, having arrived only the night before from Amsterdam, Holland. I have terrible jet lag, but even though it is only daybreak, my dad has already organized a driver with a car and a Vietnamese English-speaking translator and is ready to head out of the big city.
In communist Vietnam, it is still impossible for tourists to rent their own cars so the only option is to hire a driver — something my father loathes, because he usually finds himself educating the driver to understand a whole new set of objectives. It is always a stitch to watch him gesticulating for the driver to stop (this happens when dad sees something along the side of the road, on a cliff, or in a market stall). The driver, of course, is oblivious; but through a series of jerks and stops he starts to understand the whims of his newest passengers.
It's 7 a.m. and we are set to go — hoping, of course, that our translator, just arrived, really speaks English! We leave the cacophonic city and our plan is to travel a few hundred miles to the northern-most region of Vietnam. Our expedition is focused on finding the incredibly bizarre Gac fruit (Momordica cochichinensis). Our destination is SaPà, a town in a region that is famous for its lush green rice paddies that are carved intricately into each surrounding mountain, having been planted for at least hundreds of years.
The journey to this realm has been full of its surprises — from dirty sheets in the hotel rooms, to the fascinating fruit, vegetables, and plants that we found along the roadside or in little villages.
One of the more interesting encounters we had was with an old medicine lady who had an eclectic collection of what she called “medicinal plants” — an assorted and sundry presentation of roots, twigs, bark and powders. One of the roots caught my dad’s eye. “What is this?” The lady ignored him. My dad asked a passerby, “What is this?" The man replied, “We use that in chicken soup.” My dad’s look was dubious, “I don’t believe him, Alicia. This root looks familiar, but not for food!” My dad mumbled that he would never try an unknown root without better proof.
Later that evening, after having bought almost the entire selection of the old lady’s “medicinal plants,“ my dad says he has identified the root: “Aconite sinensis, that’s what this is. And guess what, Alicia? It is deadly!” Turns out that the “chicken soup root” is used in Northern Vietnam by traditional fighters in order for them to take the pain of hand-to-hand combat. The prescribed method of application is to rub the cut root on your arms and legs and other areas. The root sap numbs you, so you don’t experience the pain of being pummeled. If used indiscriminately it can cause death. But, stranger than fiction, it is also used to make porridge — the aforementioned “chicken soup.” The local name is hard to translate but phonetically looks something like this: “AyyuuTa-Csu.” Good thing Dad is an old pro at finding out which plants are edible! This deadly one is edible — but only with the right processing.
Another interesting thing that she supplied us with was a small nut the size of a hazelnut that tasted like a bland almond. However, upon drinking water, that water tasted sweeter than sugar syrup! It was an amazing discovery and we still have to go back and find out specifically what it was.
Finally Finding the Gac
Despite the diversions, we finally arrive where the prized Gac is to be found, and we are able to locate some of the very unusual fruit.
Few people in the west know what the Gac is, or what the fruit looks like. Gac fruits are not known in their wild state; all of them seem to be at least semi-domesticated and they range in size from that of a softball to a soccer ball. Ripe fruits have a spiny, dark-orange exterior and a yellow rind that encases the blood red arils (the flesh around the seeds). The flavor of the Gac pulp has been likened to Vitamin A or Vitamin E capsules: it is rich, oily, and pleasant. In some parts of southeast Asia they are eaten like green, cooked vegetables.
Nowadays this fruit is rarely prepared outside of special occasions, such as weddings and family feasts, because it is rather laborious to use. Traditionally, the ladies of the house take the fruits, cut them and scoop out the seeds with the arils. They mix them into the glutinous rice all the while squeezing the seeds. Eventually the rice turns a blood red color, which of course is a sight to see. This particular dish is called Xòi gàc and it is still highly appreciated despite the fact that it is hard to find.
The Gac fruit with its red-orange hue has the typical nutritional values that characterize such colored fruits. The Gac fruit contains carotenoids such as beta-carotene (provitamin A) and Lycopene. The Gac aril oil contains very high levels of vitamin E, and the fatty acids in the aril oil may facilitate the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients, including carotenoids. Due to the Gac’s extremely high content of beta-carotene and lycopene it is an essential food supplement that is desperately needed in South Asian countries where children are especially vitamin A deficient.
One of the reasons for which this fruit is not used more often is because the Gac is only available a few months of the year. The peak harvest times of Gac fruit are from December to February, after which it becomes a rare commodity for the public.
Potential to Grow All Over the World
The Gac belongs to the same family that squash, cucumbers, melons, and watermelons belong to: the Cucurbitaceae. Gac fruit vines are extremely productive producing huge numbers of fruits. The vines are perennial and will tolerate low temperatures into the teens. It can be cut back to ground level and mulched heavily, and in mild zones it will come back to produce bumper crops.
In Northern Vietnam, the vines are heavily pruned at the end of the growing season. The main stem can become almost treelike with time. In North America, Gac Fruit is a promising cash crop for milder areas especially seeing the fruits are gorgeous and very nutritious.
With my fond memories of Vietnam, it will be a pleasure to see Gac fruits growing everywhere!
Alicia Simcox is the daughter of Joseph Simcox, “The Botanical Explorer.” Alicia has traveled to 70 countries with her father, studying the wonders of the green world. She presently is finishing her university studies in Rome, Italy, majoring in philosophy and languages.