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Eating durians, rambutans - raw-vegan

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Asian Travel in the Raw
by Robert A. Miller


During 1999 and early 2000, I spent four-and-a-half months traveling in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. Although I had been to Asia, this was unlike my previous travels there because it was my first time as a 100% raw-vegan. What also made these trips significantly different was that I was experiencing markedly better health, ease of finding and being served meals, and people’s often unexpectedly positive reactions to, and respect for, my diet and way of life.

As a raw-vegan, I eat exclusively fresh, uncooked plants. While the bulk of my intake is made up of fruits and vegetables, I also consume nuts, seeds, and sprouted beans. I have been eating this way since 1998, but raw foods were the mainstay of my diet for the five previous years. I can honestly say that, through this diet and lifestyle, I now experience physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health far greater than at any other time in my life.

A Musical Tour of the Subcontinent
By profession, I am a composer, saxophonist, and flutist. The first two weeks of my Asian travels were a whirlwind tour with my band, “Prime Meridian,” performing eight concerts in six cities in India and Pakistan. At this point I had little time to enjoy the fruits of India, but the benefits of my raw-vegan diet were clear: tremendous energy, stamina, inner calm, and mental clarity.

During my two prior visits to South Asia, when I was eating a mixed raw- and cooked-vegetarian diet, I did have fairly good health. However, I often got the runs, even from the most mild home-cooked meals. On this latest trip, despite the fact that I flaunted all the conventional rules of travel and common wisdom by simply washing my fruits and vegetables and eating them, I felt better than ever, and had no stomach or bowel problems.

I did encounter a few surprised reactions to my dietary habits. For example, this happened when waiters realized that, “Yes, I really did want a mountain of salad,” and, “No, the two slices of pineapple would not be enough for breakfast.” Our local hosts were very accommodating, often taking us to the colorful outdoor markets where we found an abundance of fruit, such as large, red-fleshed papayas, creamy guavas, delicious honey-tasting chiku (sapodilla or nispero in Latin America, sawo in Indonesia), and fresh-squeezed juices. The major cities of Karachi, Lahore, Delhi, Calcutta, and Bombay all have huge, bustling produce markets where fresh, colorful, and inexpensive fruits and vegetables pour in daily from the countryside.

Except when on tour with my band, I usually stayed in private homes, so raw-veganism became a frequent topic. The traditions of eating rice, dhal (cooked lentils), drinking milk, cooking with liberal amounts of butter and spices, and, in the Muslim countries, eating flesh, are quite strong. But I found that explaining my diet was very easy since there were no longer any gray areas. “I eat fresh, uncooked fruits and vegetables only.” If further explanation was needed, “That is the way food comes from God,” and “It contains all the energy of the sunshine,” were usually accepted.

Once in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where I was doing two “East Meets West” concerts, I returned from the market with a 12-pound Jakfruit. I was excited to try this knobby-skinned monster, but not before I was chided for paying 120 taka, ($2.40 US) for it. Apparently the local price should have been around 30 taka, but the inner yellow segments were so honey-sweet and rich, I did not care. I have had Jakfruit many times since, but none have come close to the taste and texture of that first one.

Although people were quite surprised that I do not drink milk, which is nearly of a deity status in India, their reaction was generally one of respect and understanding. It was a far cry from reactions in America, where I have found incredulity and mockery of the raw-vegan lifestyle to be common. While abroad, on a number of occasions I even heard, “Oh, he eats like a sadhu” (Hindu ascetic holy man). I thought this was overstating things a bit, but it was a nice compliment, and heartening to see that people could grasp the spiritual aspects of raw-veganism.

A Fruitarian in Bali
Toward the end of 1999, I vacationed for two months in Bali and Lombok, Indonesia. With the exception of Bali’s heavily touristic south, the islands fit the term “tropical paradise” more aptly than any other place I have visited. There are lush verdant landscapes, imposing volcanoes, hills terraced with rice paddies, and white- and black-sand beaches with calm, clear waters. There is also a richly artistic culture. These islands also have a staggering variety and abundance of luscious tropical fruits, and are no less than a fruitarian’s paradise.

I bought a mountain bike in Bali. This created a wonderful way to see the island, get to know the people, and get plenty of exercise. It also helped me to make quick friends in the villages when I would stop to drink a refreshing klapa muda (young coconut).

In Indonesia, fruit is inexpensive and ubiquitous. It is found in huge baskets at the morning indoor and outdoor markets, and by the piece at roadside shops and stalls. It is impressively fresh, and is usually sold within a day, if not hours after picking. I found many fruits with which I was familiar, such as oranges, apples, mangos, coconuts, avocados, papayas, bananas, grapes, tomatoes, and cucumbers. There are also many fascinating and delicious local fruits that are little known in the West. These include rambutan, mangosteen, salak, durian, sawo, makisa, and others.

Most fruits in Bali are naturally organic, and often wild. Because it is a volcanic island, the soil is very rich and fertile from the volcanic ash. These conditions, along with the sunshine and rain, produce some of the sweetest, most satisfying and energy-giving food I have ever eaten. Many fruits, which I thought were seedless, had seeds, thus showing their viability and fertility. Bananas and pineapples were the most striking examples. On a few occasions I received the gift of fruits directly from the tree, especially papayas. The “electricity” they gave when eaten was just incredible.

I did feel the need for the more grounding, balancing nutrition of vegetables. Initially this presented a problem because what I found in the markets outside the main towns was often unfamiliar, wilted, wormy, or non-existent. But perseverance led to a bounty. While in the hills, I foraged Asiatic dayflower, common plantain, wood sorrel, and my favorite, purslane. These, along with the ubiquitous mung bean sprouts (long and thick), made a fine salad. I made one Balinese friend who would introduce me to his friends and relatives in almost mythological terms. He has lived for over 2 years eating only buah-buahan and padang — fruit and grass.

Later I did find excellent cabbage, napa cabbage, romaine lettuce, cucumber, and red cucumber, which all went well with my garlicky guacamole. In Ubud, the main artistic center, there is a restaurant and organic fruit and vegetable shop run by Helen. She is French, and has been an instinctive eater, or “instincto,” for more than 10 years. I was thrilled to know that I was not the only raw-foodist in Bali, and to find a wide variety of high quality greens and excellent tomatoes. I was also glad to know that she was rarely, if ever, of the raw meat persuasion, as many instinctos are. She recounted how, out of her four children, the two youngest had never eaten cooked food, or been vaccinated, and were strong, bright-eyed, and had never gotten sick. This was not the case with her two eldest, who ate cooked food.

Aside from the delicious produce, Bali and Lombok offer what good health requires: lots of fresh air, sunshine, a tropical climate, a relaxed atmosphere, and warm, friendly people. The villagers smile freely and often. They know leisure time. Their exemplary life provided lessons on why I should amend my non-stop New York City life.

The cities and larger towns were similar to those anywhere, with people crowded close together, living in the midst of each others’ refuse, all-the-while trying to “get somewhere.” But, in the villages I found simple, balanced, community-oriented people — I believe as natural as cooked-food agriculturists can be. The Balinese villagers in particular seemed to live in harmony with their island, rather than trying to conquer and control it. They created a symmetrical life that flowed with the islands’ asymmetry. Their daily prayers and ever-present offerings of fruit, flowers, and rice cakes were constant and touching reminders that we are simply one member of the community of life in a vast, benevolent, and infinitely wise universe.

Asian Raw Delights

I make an effort to get the freshest, ripest fruit possible. Most tropical fruits are ripe when they “give” to a slight pressure of the fingers. Fragrance is also an important indicator of ripeness. The rich flavors and heady bouquets are quite an experience when they are perfectly ripe. For me, the look and smell of a food are the cues to whether it is something I should eat at that time.

Dates
Iranian dates flow across the porous border in the western Pakistani province of Balochistan en route to Karachi. These black, medium-sized, incredibly moist dates are sugary sweet, and are reputed to be some of the best in the world. At $2 a kilogram (2.2 pounds) it was hard to disagree.

Durian
In Indonesia, people are really passionate about this large, hard, dangerously spiky, irregularly oval “King of Fruits.” They will go to great lengths to either get it, or get away from it. The fruits I saw varied in size from 5- to 18-inches long. It is a fatty, and mildly sweet fruit with a taste that is altogether unique, and indescribably sublime. In season it is usually sold at roadside stands, rather than in the markets. Local durians are wild, and although they definitely have a distinct odor, it is not the room-clearing stench of the hybridized durians often found in Asian markets of the West.

Fresh Figs
In Bombay I found these giant purple wonders sold four-dozen to a box for only $2. They were packed in neatly arranged rows, separated by rolled fig leaves, and protected by dried aromatic flowers. The seeded jelly inside was delectable, and the outside was excellent too. I ate many incredible meals consisting only of figs and mangos.

Ganna Ras (sugar cane juice)
Widely available and fresh-pressed at roadside stands, especially in Pakistan. Only 8¢ for a large glass! This refreshing, and not-too-sweet, green liquid is particularly good in Lahore.

Kinu
Pakistan is well known for these medium-sized, slightly flat oranges. The skin is bright orange and separates easily. The fruit is exceedingly sweet, soft, and juicy. For me they are the best oranges in the world, and the juice is incomparable.

Makisa (passion fruit)
Looks like a big, orange egg. The hard shell cracks open, and inside are dozens of flat, edible, shiny, black seeds encased in a very juicy pulp. Best when slurped.

Manggis (mangosteen)
This beautiful purple ball with a bright green stem is coveted by Indonesians for its delicate taste. Cracking open the thick outer shell, one finds a milky-white segmented globe. The fruit is light and sweet, and the seeds have a rich, nutty flavor.

Mangos
The Indian Subcontinent boasts hundreds of varieties, and the season was just getting underway during my last weeks there. India and Pakistan both say they have the best mangos (although most mango-growing countries exaggerate this). I found the best mangos in Bombay, where “Alphonso” mangos rule. They are exceptionally rich and flavorful.

Nangka (jakfruit)
Said to be the largest fruit in the world, a mature jakfruit usually weighs from 25- to 100-pounds! In Indonesia, jakfruit trees are everywhere, and I often marveled at how such massive fruit could stay attached to the tree by their thin stems. The fruit is somewhat chewy, and reminiscent of the scent of fruit gum.

Papaya
There are many varieties of papaya available year-round in Indonesia and India. The best are large and oblong with beautiful, orange skin when ripe. The orange-red flesh is juicy, sweet, and thick. Papaya boats with slices of banana were often my main meal of the day.

Pisang (banana)
There are dozens of varieties of banana, ranging from those that are two- or three-inches long, to those that are over one-and-a-half-feet! There are green, yellow, and red varieties, some that are more sweet, some that are more starchy. With the exception of the hybridized “plantation” bananas, which are most common in the West, all varieties that I saw in Indonesia had seeds, some of which were a quarter-inch round. There is one Indonesian variety that is almost all large seeds inside, and contains hardly any fruit at all.

Rambutan
The name means “hairy fruit.” It is a small, yellow-to-deep-red fruit growing in clusters and covered by soft, red hairs. Inside is a cloudy white globe similar to lychee, but larger, and less sweet.

Salak
A small, irregularly heart-shaped fruit with a unique snakeskin-like covering. The inner fruit looks like a big clove of garlic, and has a taste that is somewhere between that of a pineapple and a crisp apple. I was ambivalent about these at first, but they quickly became one of the mainstays of my Balinese diet.

Robert A. Miller is a professional musician and raw-vegan who lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is one of the organizers of the monthly Brooklyn Raw Food Potlucks and support group.

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