Samui Wining & Dining
Tropical Pick

A closer look at the sugar apple

A closer look at the sugar appleThey look just like small hand grenades, but they can be useful if you’re hysterical, or if you faint a lot. Some countries use them to destroy agricultural pests. In Mexico, you’ll often find them in hen’s nests. And the chances are that in Thailand, you’ll never even notice one – not unless you tread on it, that is. But if you stay here for more than a few days, you’ll probably eat some of them of them without even knowing about it.

The sugar apple (annona squamosa) is actually a long-established favourite throughout the tropical world. It hates low temperatures, and is thus found basking in the sunshine of India, Asia, South America, Egypt and Central Africa. In Northern Australia, it runs wild and grows in ditches and along the sides of the roads.

It’s easy to suppose how it got its name, as it’s about the same size as a large apple, and the tree it grows on is a similar size and shape to the apple trees we’re used to back home. It’s one of the members of the Annonaceae family, and is often misnamed after its brother, the custard apple. But, unlike its sibling, the sugar apple is much sweeter, and a much nicer guy all round. Except that it’s a lot lumpier, too, with lots of little segments standing out all over its surface.

You’ll find that the sugar apple is grown all over Thailand – mostly the trees are hidden away on farms and plantations in the northern regions. But on Samui, you’ll often come across them growing ‘wild’ – they’ll grow in any soil, including sand. So if one day you’re walking back from the beach and something wet and sticky squelches up between your toes – it’s (hopefully) a sugar apple.

Exactly where the sugar apple calls ‘home’ is lost in the mists of time. But what is known is that the Spanish traders carried the seeds to the New World in the 16th century, and that the Portuguese introduced it to India at around the same time. It was growing in Indonesia not so long after – and by the next century had spread to Egypt, Africa, Palestine, Polynesia, Hawaii, Mexico and Southern America. And so it’s not surprising that the knobby little sugar apple has more international names than the entire Chelsea football team.

Throughout South America it’s called anon … something. So in Cuba and Panama it’s anon azucar and in Dominica and Honduras it’s anon de castilla. And then you’ll also find anon domestica, anon blanca plus a whole lot more. Perhaps some of you might be more familiar with ‘sweetsop’, as they call it in the Bahamas. But in India (just to confuse matters) it’s also called the custard apple. (I wonder what they call the real custard apple!)

But you’re not out there - you’re here, on Samui. And this little fruit is delicious – so go and ask for it with its Thai name – noi na. When it’s unripe, it’s a pale green colour, with a faint and varied blue-ish sheen on the segments – and these are more compacted than with the ripe fruit. As it ripens, they begin to stand out more from the surface – to open up a bit – and the colour changes to a variegated orangey-brown, with the surface of the ‘lumps’ turning darker.

To enjoy one – just break it in two. The inside is actually very pretty – with dozens of mushy pale-orange packets radiating away from a central core. And each of these contains a sturdy, shiny black seed. Spoon out the segments and enjoy them – but spit out the seeds.

Unlike many Thai fruits (which are firm and can be cleanly cut or chopped) the sugar apple’s fruit becomes squishy and shapeless once you’ve got rid of the seed. And that’s why you won’t find it in a fruit salad or a dessert. But anytime you eat a (traditional) Thai ice cream, the chances are that the deliciously sweet (and fragrant) flavour has been produced by…guess what? Correct. Noi na.

It’s quite delectable – moist, sweet and delicious. But there’s a lot more to the sugar apple than just sucking on the fruit. Take the seeds, for example. They’re not edible – so don’t try. In fact, they’re poisonous, and contain an alkaloid called anondine. You could dry them and crush them, though – and then use a paste made from this to cure…erm…‘head infestations’, like they do in India. And as I’ve already hinted at – if you’re a Mexican farmer, you’ll find this paste handy for keeping unwanted insects away from your nesting hens.

In a world of technology, mass-production, hospitals, and over-the-counter drugs and medicines, it’s sometimes hard to believe that life is quite different in many other countries. So you might be surprised to discover that the crushed leaves of the sugar apple tree give off a pungent aroma that overcomes faintness and nausea. In India, they make a concoction from them that helps counteract rheumatic pain. In many parts of South America, it’s common to find that extracts from the astringent roots and bark are used to offset dysentery. And if you’re ever in the wilds of Egypt with toothache, you might eventually find that scrapings from the tree-roots are being poulticed onto your gums to relieve the pain.

One of the attractions of staying on Samui is that it’s still largely unspoiled. The markets and street-stalls have very much a taste of the real Thailand. And everywhere, on street corners, on the backs of trucks, in front of closed shops – you’ll find the local people selling fruit. There’s a riot of colours, textures and smells – not all of them fragrant! But if you’re looking for a sweet taste of Thailand, then you just can’t go wrong. All of the fruit is delicious – but not least of all, the sugar apple.


Rob De Wet


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