It’s not the black stuff they throw on your pizzas or the green thing they toothpick on your sandwich. How many of us city kids have tasted the tartness with a tiny sweet afterpunch of this Mekong delta fruit? It’s addictive like fresh squeezed orange juice on a summer day. Speaking street tongue, it’s nature’s crack in oblong shape.
Eat ’em fresh with chilipepper salt, or candy them with sugar and heat, it’s how kids down South do it with the cà na they shake off from bushes on the riverbanks. And argue if you may, kids know tasty food. The shape is really the only link cà na has with the Western olive (Olea europaea), though it’s at least two times bigger. Does the name “cà na” mean anything?
“Cà” is tomato, and “na” is the northern word for sweetsop, two totally unrelated species to this ovoid fruit. So “cà na” is not a compound noun. I’m no etymologist but here’s my best guess: “cà na” |kah nah| is a shortened vietnamization of the Thai word “kanachai”, from which cultigen taxonomists derive the the scientific name “canarium”, a genus with about 75 species native to the tropics. The cà na we eat and love from those riverbank bushes belongs to the species Canarium nigrum (black canarium) and Canarium album (white canarium), or “trám đen” and “trám trắng” in pure Vietnamese. Another delta variety is Canarium subulatum, pointy at both ends and sappy like green bananas.
Words on the net claim that cà na‘s acidity is good when you have a cold, drink too much, or wants to lower your weight, thus not so recommended for skinny sticks like me. I’ve never popped a fresh one myself, but this is the most (and only) mouth-watering description I could find on the net (translated from the Vietnamese original):
Every year, in roughly August or September, when the Mekong flushes the paddy fields, the cà na trees bear their first fruits. What could be better than rowing a canoe downstream, then tying it to a cà na trunk base by the riverbank to cast your fishing net, and while waiting, dip a bursting green ripen fruit into chilipepper salt to soak your soul with its wild and clean sweetness?
The first cà na‘s I’ve had are bright yellow with cracked skin, as big as a big green grape, resembling petrified dinosaur eggs, sold in glass jar among the ô mai and the salted plums.
The first nibble must be executed with caution. It’s firm and sound, with one big hard seed. No wonder the folks at home call the American football the cà na ball: they look and feel the same, only smaller. The flesh is dense like an old coconut’s meat, sour like lemon leaves, yet sweet like licorice blended with a dash of sea salt. How they’re made is a mystery to me.
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This post is submitted to Delicious Vietnam #11, March edition, hosted by The Culinary Chronicles. I’ll head to her blog for more yummy posts on Vietnamese food this month, and many thanks to the Ravenous Couple and Anh for creating this event!