Forgotten Fruits

Although we seem to be surrounded by an abundance of food choices, the variety of foods available to us is actually shrinking. According to a new study by the UN, three quarters of the world’s food now comes from just 12 plants. Of the hundreds of species of beans, cabbage, corn and other vegetables that were being grown just a century ago, now just a handful of them are available.

Here in Indonesia, regional and local crops like yams, cassava, millet and sorghum are disappearing. People are consuming more rice, wheat, soybeans and corn. This concentration on just a few species makes us very vulnerable in terms of food security. Monoculture – planting large areas with the same crop – weakens the plant. Drought, insects and diseases may become worse as a result of climate change, destroying large areas of crops.

Let’s look at bananas as an example. I read recently that one large Walmart in the US offered 153 flavours of ice cream. But how many varieties of banana were there in the produce section? Just one. The Cavendish banana has dominated the commercial banana market in North America and Europe for the past 70 years. Vast plantations in Latin America grow 50 million tons for export every year. This is the only banana most westerners have ever tasted.

Why is it so popular? It was selected for taste, high yield, disease resistance and ease of transport. But decades of monoculture have caught up with the Cavendish and now it is being decimated by a fungus called Panama Disease which is resistant to chemical control. Scientists are racing to create a genetically modified replacement Cavendish that is resistant to this fungus. I actually found articles stating that the banana as we know it was on the brink of extinction. Relax, people. There are 1000 other varieties of banana in the world, hundreds of them in Indonesia.

In 2015 an Indonesian study in 6 districts of East Java alone found 79 local banana cultivars. Many of them are wild, some are ornamental. Botanically, the banana is a berry. The moral of the Cavendish story is that by limiting the number of food plants we rely on, we place ourselves in a very vulnerable position. That handful of species that feeds most of the world could also be wiped out. That’s why it’s so important to ensure that there’s a wide range of plant foods being grown all over the world.

Let’s look at Bali and the subject of fruit. When we think of fruit here the ones that come to mind are papaya, pineapple, bananas, guava, durian, oranges. Because there’s a big commercial demand for these, they are cultivated for sale.

But there’s a shadow world of indigenous fruit here that most of us will never see or taste. The kluwek sentol, sawo duren, suku, pepino ungu, mundu   bandung and kaliasem are just a few fruits indigenous to Southeast Asia but now rarely found here in Bali. These are big, messy, not particularly beautiful trees. They’re the first to be chopped down in Bali when someone contracts land to build a villa, and no one ever seems to plant them again. You’ll seldom see the fruit in the markets or among the offerings. The old people remember them fondly, and most of the young people have never heard of them. These and other rare fruits may have unique nutritional or medicinal properties. To my knowledge no one in Bali is studying this.

Take the boni or buni berry, pictured here. The buni is a small fruit with a sharp, cranberry-like flavor. Recently the buni berry (antidesma bunius) has been discovered by the local international food community where its exotic flavour inspires cocktails, sauces, preserves and desserts. There’s considerable competition for the buni fruit now and chefs often pre-buy the entire harvest from the tree owners. It fruits between February and April.

The owners of Gelato Secrets, which uses only fresh  Indonesian flavourings, were excited by the taste of the buni and wanted to create a sorbetto with it. But they weren’t able to source enough quantity for regular production. During the Ubud Food Festival they weren’t able to find even a kilogram of ripe fruit to make a small batch for tasting during my talk. Balipop, another producer with a focus on local, seasonal fruits, would like to make a buni pop, but can’t find enough fruit.

Many years ago I first encountered buni as a jelly made by Bali Asli, a small family company that produces very high quality fruit preserves and nut butters from local, seasonal ingredients. Bali Asli buys all the buni berries it can find in season, and I buy all the jelly I can find, but it doesn’t appear very often. Grab a jar if you see it, it’s fabulous with cheese, poultry or on toast.

Raka, the creative barman at Night Rooster, makes a fabulous cocktail with buni berry juice. He pre-contracts the harvest of a certain tree in Ubud; that is his only source of the fruit. When it’s gone the cocktail, named Batch 287, is off the menu.

So although there is clearly commercial potential for buni, no one seems to planting trees for commercial production.

The buni and other rare fruit trees are available to cultivate at home and I have placed orders for several varieties. There’s no need for a big garden as the marcotted trees can be grown as miniature trees that will fruit well in pots. In the wild, these trees propagate by seed which gives very uncertain fruit production. The tree might fruit in 5 years, or 10 or 15 or not at all. So fruit trees are propogated for maximum yield. In this case, propagation is by a simple method called marcotting or air layering. This stimulates a branch of the tree that produces good fruit to grow roots and generate another plant that will produce identical fruit.

Pak Sadmada ( 081 806 850 631) is a wonderful resource for rare fruit trees. I’ve asked him for several of the ones I’ve been researching. He has them located and marcotted in Java, delivers them to my house and then explains how to cultivate them for best results. It takes about 6 months after ordering for your new tree to arrive. These trees will begin to fruit after a couple of years and can be kept under 3 meters in height. I want to grow some of these as a legacy for my Balinese family, and to try and generate some interest in the culinary community.


By Ibu Kat



Copyright © 2019 Greenspeak


You can read all past articles of

Greenspeak at


Ibu Kat’s book of stories

Bali Daze – Free-fall off the Tourist Trail and Retired, Rewired – Living Without Adult

Supervision in Bali are available from Ganesha Books and on Kindle