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Trái Thị: The Fruit of Heavenly Smell and Infernal Taste

If you had to pick a national smell that represents Vietnam, what would it be? There are a host of strong contenders: durian, lotus-scented green tea, fragrant pandan sticky rice, that enticing aroma of shallots crisping up in hot oil. It’s hard to say no to tasty things, but for me, that honor unequivocally belongs to trái thị, the golden apple of Vietnam.

Trái thị, the golden apple of Vietnam.

Thị (Diospyros decandra) is not a particularly eye-catching fruit; at best, one can describe its appearance as homely. Even at its ripest, thị wears a pale yellow peel with a peppering of black dots on a matte coat, a far cry from the glossy sheen of its closest cousins, persimmons (Diospyros kaki).

But there’s a hearty authenticity to a basket of plump thị that has always endeared me to it. Modern crops like apples, carrots or rice have all gone through centuries, if not millennia, of selective breeding to engineer them for supermarket shelves. With the fruit’s limited commercial viability, the genetics of thị trees have rarely strayed far from its naturally selected self, firmly keeping its thick canopy and sweet scent rooted in Vietnamese culture.

What trái thị lacks in appearance, it makes up for in divine aroma.

That aroma — where do I begin? It’s as sweet as honey, but not as cloying; as memorable as mango, but not as tropical; as floral as jasmine, but not as piquant. It’s a gentle but assured reminder of how nature is capable of grasping us by the nostrils and exclaiming “remember this feeling” in bold neon letters. Sometimes my brain doesn’t archive memories by narrative sequence, but by senses. In my temporal lobe, there’s a file labeled “thị” that dates back to a childhood memory with my mom; the file that, when opened, will give off a thị perfume the way a Christmas card reeks of frankincense.

In his essay collection Sương Khói Quê Nhà (The Remnants of Home), children’s literature author Nguyễn Nhật Ánh describes encountering thị in Saigon like meeting up with an old acquaintance from one’s hometown. He was driving past a market in the city one day when something stopped him in his tracks. An unknown force made itself present in his subconscious even before he could identify the source of the attraction. As he slowly backpedalled, there that something was: a basket full of freshly picked thị, as golden as the Quang Nam sunrise.

Did you know?

Two 600-year-old thị trees at the Citadel of the Ho Dynasty in Thanh Hoa Province were officially recognized by the Vietnamese government as national heritage trees.

“Children buy thị to put inside their school bag, desk drawer or rucksack, enjoying the fragrance for three or four days until the fruit turns mushy. Then, they peel it to eat and carefully tear the peel into a flower shape to stick on the wall,” he reminisces. When I was just a child, my first thị was with me on the desk through an entire day of arithmetic and algebra homework. In between equations, I would lift the fruit up, press it to my nose and breathe in a lungful.

Thị enters the fabrics of Vietnamese culture in one of the most prominent folk stories in history, The Tale of Tấm Cám. After her father passes away, Tấm lives with her stepmother and stepsister Cám, suffering from their abusive antics every day. A chance encounter with a missing shoe at a party catches the prince’s eyes and Tấm is married into the royal family. Jealous of her matrimony, the stepmother asks Tấm to climb up a palm tree to pick areca nuts for the father’s death anniversary. She chops the tree down, and Tấm falls to her death.

Tấm reincarnates as a thị tree that only bears one fruit. Day by day, the fruit’s lonely existence catches the attention of an old lady who mans a humble drink stall nearby. She whispers to herself: “Thị ơi thị à, thị rơi bị bà, bà để bà thơm chứ bà không ăn / O thị my thị, fall into my bag, I’ll only enjoy your smell and won’t eat you.” To her shock, the fruit gently slides into her burlap sack and she takes it home.

Thị ơi thị à, thị rơi bị bà, bà để bà thơm chứ bà không ăn.

O thị my thị, fall into my bag, I’ll only enjoy your smell and won’t eat you.

When her cohabitation with trái thị began, she would leave for work only to return to a pristine home with a delicious dinner awaiting. One morning, she pretends to depart but instead hides in a bush, and a miracle unfolds before her eyes: a young woman, Tấm, steps out of the fruit and begins cleaning the house. The lady, moved by Tấm’s kindness, convinces her to abandon the fruit and live with her as the daughter she has long wished for but never had.

The story ends happily for Tấm, delivering a hopeful message that goodness will prevail. It also consolidates the popularity of thị in our collective culture: no other fruit could propel the narrative forward like trái thị can. Could a frugal working-class lady bear to waste a perfectly ripe, nectariferous mango just because she made a promise to just smell it? This is the starring role tailored just for thị, the fruit that smells like heaven and tastes like hell.

Trái thị is the fruit that smells like heaven and tastes like hell.

I longed to try my first thị for days, despite my mom’s stern and repeated warnings that it wouldn’t taste good. However, to an adventurous child who had once bitten into candle wax, scented soap and mangosteen rind, such advice was impotent. I cut out a slice of thị and placed it on my tongue. A feathering of sweetness filled my palate, followed quickly by a hostile, repulsive washing of tannic sap. Sometimes, when you eat a not-quite-ripe persimmon, there’s a grittiness that coats your tongue amidst the soft fruit flesh. This was like that, plus the aftertaste of the bitterest green tea. Thị is a vivid, unforgettable lesson in temperance that any voracious Vietnamese kid will probably retain in their memory for a long time.

Beside a winning supporting role in a popular folk tale, there are other slivers of thị in Vietnamese culture. The asterisk is called dấu hoa thị, or the thị flower symbol, as it resembles thị’s delicate white blossoms. In temples, courtyards, mausoleums, and shrines across the country, centenarian thị trees stand tall like ancient guardians, a few of which are as old as 600 and officially recognized as artifacts of national heritage.

The asterisk is called dấu hoa thị, or the thị flower symbol.

Trái thị has its place in our mythology and geography, but perhaps nowhere is it as venerated and loved as inside the psyche of Vietnamese children. The fruits grow and ripen from late summer all the way to autumn, just in time for Trung Thu, a children’s festival. Nguyễn Nhật Ánh writes that thị is less a fruit to eat than a fruit to play. My connection with thị has my mother as the key link, and I’ve since bought thị whenever I spot them on the street to give to friends and coworkers. It’s a gift bestowing newfound fascination rather than just a typical sweet treat. It anchors shared memories, as Ánh perfectly puts:

“Later, after I’ve moved to the south, the season of ripe thị only reappears in wistful dreams. So yesterday afternoon, a basket of thị on the side of the road compelled me to stop to look back at my past. Of course I bought the entire basket, without hesitation or bargaining. Because I didn’t buy a piece of merchandise, I bought a memory.”

Because I didn’t buy a piece of merchandise, I bought a memory.

This article was originally published in 2021.

Top image by Phan Nhi, Jessie Trần.
Graphics by Phan Nhi, Patty Yang, Hannah Hoàng, Phương Phan, Jessie Trần.

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