Fruit hunters are people who love fruit. And by love we mean they are completely obsessed. Yung Chang directed the documentary Fruit Hunters — which you can watch it online now — and he knows first hand the love of a diverse ‘magical’ berry or a stinky, spiky fruit.
Rico Gagliano: Your film follows people who travel to very far reaches of the world to taste bizarre and exotic fruits, or who dedicate their lives to preserving or growing or collecting rare fruits. How did you fall into that world? Are you an addict yourself?
Yung Chang: You know, I didn’t start out as an addict. I started out as a lover of certain types of fruit. I’m of Chinese origin and background, so I used to go to Taiwan a lot in the summers. We’d indulge in some weird kinds of fruit – like the durian fruit, for example.
Rico Gagliano: Sure, known to be very smelly but very buttery inside.
Yung Chang: Right, it’s the stinkiest fruit in the world. They say that it tastes like eating your favorite ice cream while sitting on the toilet. As I started to realize that there were actual fruit-obsessed individuals, “fruit hunters,” and even organizations like the Rare Fruit Council International, I started to realize this is serious business for some people. Then you start filming it, and people are showing you some of these incredible, almost sculptural species.
Rico Gagliano: They look like they’re from a different world, some of them.
Yung Chang: Yeah.You really get the sense that you want to forget about filming it and become a fruit hunter. I think that obsession kind of took over as I was making the movie.
Rico Gagliano: Well let me ask, why fruit though? Why not vegetables — which also can be in bizarre forms — or grains or something? What is the allure of fruit to these people and to you?
Yung Chang: I think the allure is that ,when you think about broccoli or cauliflower for example, it doesn’t really get you turned on. The beauty of fruit is that they’ve been created to seduce us. That is the purpose of fruit, solely to make us want to eat it.
Rico Gagliano: And I assume the reason why biologically plants would want — if we can attribute want to plants — us to eat their fruit is so that we’ll pass it through our systems and the seeds get out into the world.
Yung Chang: Right, on the most basic level, yes that was the initial intention of fruit, was so that we could spread their seed. It just sounds very sexual, because in a way it really is.
Rico Gagliano: Early in the film you show what looks like a mango auction. Was it only mangoes? It’s a fruit auction of some kind.
Yung Chang: That is a very special annual charity auction that happens at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Miami. Every year they have a mango festival, one of the highlights is this amazing mango auction.
Rico Gagliano: Well it looks like at one point a mango goes for $750. Is that for one mango?
Yung Chang: That is for a handful of mangoes, not a lot. But they’re so rare and so special that people will bid top dollar for something like this. I spent some time there. People, it’s sort of unbelievable.
I’ve tried mangoes that taste like crème brûlée, piña colada, lemon meringue pie, I kid you not. It’s a very, it was an eye-opening experience to know there’s so much more out there.
Rico Gagliano: Well, this film is packed with shots of weird fruits, non-mango fruits, and delightful little origin tales of various fruits. So first thing is the miracle berry. That just blew my mind.
Yung Chang: Probably one of the most fascinating and most unusual fruits out there. It originally comes from Cameroon. You eat it and it doesn’t taste like much. But when you combine it with food that is very sour, for example lemons, there’s a special trait in the miracle fruit that will convert that flavor into an extreme, almost saccharin sweet. So lemons will taste like lemonade, and strawberries will be the sweetest strawberry you’ve ever eaten.
When we were traveling with the film we came up with this great concoction when you have, for example, a mojito — you can have this mojito without the sugar but eat a miracle fruit beforehand. It’ll be the best mojito you’ll ever have. It tricks the taste buds in your tongue to register the, whatever is sour or bitter as sweet.
Rico Gagliano: Let’s go on to the discovery of the McIntosh apple.
Yung Chang: That is a love story. The story of John McIntosh who was an American who left the US during the Civil War in search of his wife who had left beforehand, near Cornwall, Ontario. It turned out his wife had passed away. And, looking up, he saw this lone, sole apple in a tree where his wife was buried, and that apple became known as the McIntosh apple.
Rico Gagliano: And I think of the McIntosh apple as being a little bittersweet, so it’s kind of perfect. One guy in the film mentions, in passing, that fruits run the gambit from wonderful to scary. Tell me about a scary fruit.
Yung Chang: Yeah, there’s a lot of scary fruit out there, and especially in Borneo. We discovered a fruit that is called the snake fruit. It’s also called selak. It kind of looks like an onion, but coated in a leathery skin.
Rico Gagliano: Perfect.
Yung Chang: And that skin resembles a sheath of reptilian skin.
Rico Gagliano: Is this thing supposed to be tempting? That doesn’t sound like something I’m going to look at and say, “hey, I’m gonna put that in my mouth.”
Yung Chang: It’s not tempting for everyone. But when you slide the skin off there are these cloves in the interior. And they are crispy and delicious.
So it’s scary at first, but then there’s some sort of allure. I think there is something about fruit being like that — sometimes you’re in shock and awe at it’s appearance. But upon tasting it, it can be transcendental.
Rico Gagliano: Like love itself, scary…
Yung Chang: Like…
Rico Gagliano: Yet…
Yung Chang: Like love…
Rico Gagliano: Worth sticking around for somehow. Mr. Chang, thank you so much for teaching us today.