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A Food Folk Tale: How a Poor Farmer Traded Starfruit for Gold

In Vietnam, fruits, especially those of the oddly shaped variety, come with a story. From pineapple to watermelon, there’s not a snack in this country that doesn’t come with a lesson attached. The juicy, yellow-green starfruit is no different.

Once upon a time, there were two brothers. They had lost their parents early in life and were thus forced to make ends meet on their own. Time passed, the brothers eventually got married, and the older brother, ready to be rid of his younger sibling, ordered his kid brother out of the house. The younger brother was left with a small plot of land and nothing more than a shack and a fruit tree.

In this way, the older brother came to live in the large family home with its ample gardens, while the younger brother eked out a living from his modest dwelling nearby. The younger sibling worked tirelessly, tending to the tree and the rest of his land, until one day the tree began to bear fruit. Excited at the prospect of taking this sweet, yellow fruit to market, the younger brother began collecting the starfruit to earn money to buy rice.

One day, however, a phoenix appeared in the tree and began to eat the fruit, destroying the younger brother’s only source of income. Desperate, the younger brother pleaded with the phoenix to stop, begging it to leave the fruit alone or, at the very least, offer something of value in return. In exchange for its starfruit binge, the phoenix promised to bring the young man to an island full of gold, instructing him to bring a sack three hand-lengths in size (important side note: back in the day, sacks were measured in hand-lengths) and hop on the phoenix’s back. The younger brother obliged and took off with the bird.

Sure enough, the phoenix brought the younger brother to a rocky, remote island and told him to place a stone from the ground in his bag. When the stone went into the bag, it was transformed into gold. Ecstatic, the younger brother filled his sack up with gold, closed it and returned to the phoenix. For a brief moment, the phoenix suggested he take more, but the younger brother was satisfied. He hopped on the phoenix’s back and the pair flew back to his house.

Now flush with gold, the younger brother was careful with his money and used it wisely. He bought enough rice for himself and his wife, gave to the poor, and continued to care for the tree. In time, the young man became rich.

Meanwhile, the older brother watched his sibling’s transformation and grew jealous. Seeing the wealth his younger brother had accumulated, one day the older sibling and his wife ventured to the small plot of land they’d given their brother and demanded they switch homes. The younger brother agreed, and the elder couple moved out to the small shack while the younger brother and his wife settled into the bigger family house.

The phoenix eventually returned to the tree and began snacking on starfruit again. Faking desperation, the older brother repeated his younger sibling’s actions, begging and pleading with the bird to offer something as compensation for his starfruit frenzy. Again, the phoenix made its offer of gold and instructed the older brother to get a sack three hand-lengths in size and wait for the bird’s return.

But in preparation for his trip to the gold island, the older brother got greedy, putting together a sack that was 12 hand-lengths in size. When the bird finally returned, the older brother hopped on its back and went to the island. Wide-eyed at the prospect of so much gold, he filled his bag to the top and dragged it back onto the phoenix, ready to head home.

This, however, became his end. Weighed down by both the older brother and his massive haul of gold, the phoenix began to tire, telling its passenger to offload some gold in order for them to keep going. When the older brother refused, the phoenix decided to save itself and tossed both the older brother and his gold into the sea. Today, the saying “ăn khế trả vàng” serves as a reminder to keep one’s word, and the older brother’s fate cautions against being blinded by greed. Think about that next time you’re feasting on starfruit.

[Photo via Suwannee Rose]

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