Where have all the local fruits gone?
LOS BAÑOS, Laguna — Growing up here in Laguna, I was blessed to have a childhood surrounded with trees — not just the forest trees of Mt. Makiling, but also the fruit trees in the houses of my grandparents in San Pablo. Because I was exposed to so many fruits, I could almost tell the time of the year based on which of them were in season.
During the dry months of March and April, for instance, we had dalandan aplenty, and various kinds of mangoes: Indian, apple, and my favorite kinalabaw. In May, pineapple harvest peaks in Calauan, and whenever our family would drive back from San Pablo to Los Baños on Sunday evenings, we made sure to stop by my mother’s suki near the town plaza.
Then in June, the bignay trees would blossom, yielding a deep red, berry-like fruit that’s good for juicing. Shortly after, it’s the turn of the rambutan and the lanzones. Because my grandparents had both these trees, my cousins and I raced to be first to taste the first fruits of the season.
Some fruits don’t really remind me of a particular season, but I was happy to have them just the same. For instance, there’s balimbing, duhat, santol and macopa — each with their distinct sour flavor, all of which I loved to snack on with rock salt; on the sweet side were atis, caimito and macopa. Occasionally, when my cousin Franz and I would roam around downtown San Pablo, we would see sampinit — wild berries harvested from the slopes of Mt. Cristobal—being sold at the public market, and I never failed to buy a pack or two.
And of course, there’s the langka and guyabano that take a while to ripen; we would eagerly anticipate them as they mature on the tree, hoping that no wind, animal, or human would get in the way.
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I was reminded of these memories during a recent trip to the Amazon, where I encountered all kinds of fruits beyond the usual apples and oranges.
For instance, there was the açai—the popular “superfruit” that’s sold as a juice or a smoothie mixed with banana and other fruits.
And then there’s the cupuaçu, which has the texture of guyabano with a hint of durian, as well as the taperabá, which has a chico-like flavor, only stronger. Other popular fruits include acerola, camu camu, jabuticaba, along with more familiar ones like the abacaxi, which is simply pineapple, and maracuya, passion fruit.
In the Philippines, we also have a rich diversity of fruits, both native and introduced. But it is increasingly difficult to get hold of them. This is true for the fruits I reminisced about, and even truer for other local fruits like the exquisite tabo from Southern Palawan or the blueberry-like ayosep from the Cordileras. Surely, there are many other examples of fruits I’ve never heard of, let alone tasted.
Instead, what takes prominent place in our supermarkets are fruits from elsewhere: apples and oranges from China, lemons and grapes from the US, kiwifruit from New Zealand. In 2018, the Philippines imported over P8 billion worth of apples alone. Of course, these fruits are delicious, too, but are we favoring them at the expense of our local ones? And what are the environmental and economic costs of this preference?
Buying dalandan from a roadside stall in Calauan for P20 a kilo would have directly benefited the farmer and the local seller. Buying an orange from China — for P20 apiece — would have benefited the supermarket owners and those involved in the export.
Local fruits, however, don’t always come cheap: Owing to the economics of scale, multinational companies are able to sell at a very low cost, while being able to invest in research on how to make their produce last longer and still retain some flavor. Alas, despite efforts from our local scientists, there is very little funding for research, particularly for local fruits perceived to have little economic importance.
Given the scarcity of these fruits in our cities, it is also difficult to use some of them in our recipes — like kamias or batuan for sinigang.
Increased awareness and demand, however, may yet make a difference. By paying more attention to our local fruits — and patronizing those that sell and make use of them — perhaps we can bring back their rightful place in our markets and homes.
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