I sampled my first pomelo in rather insalubrious surroundings. Perched unceremoniously atop a wall, sweat clinging tenaciously to my shoulders and brow, overlooking a rubbish-strewn ditch with the sickly aroma of rotting fruit permeating my sinuses, I hacked off its mottled green skin with a penknife and proceeded to prise away at the flesh within, the hand sanitizer I'd zealously rubbed over my fingers doing little to assuage my feelings of filthiness. Its pearly pink flesh and sweet, tart flavour stood in sharp contrast to the ambience, and I spent a few happily relaxed moments concentrating on pulling apart its rosy segmented lobes, deaf to the madness of motorbikes and hawkers around me.
This was in Hué, Vietnam. I'd purchased a pomelo from the main market, having been intrigued for years about these gigantic grapefruits and finally deciding to bite the bullet and get one. I probably should have tried it first in the UK, sitting down at a table with a nice chopping board and serrated knife rather than perched on a crumbling wall doing my best with a blunt penknife and a complete absence of plate or napkin, but that's life for you. Besides, I was doing my bit in terms of food miles - better, surely, to eat a fruit in its country of origin rather than thousands of miles away from it?
The pomelo is like a grapefruit, but bigger, and possessing none of that sour astringence that makes people dislike grapefruits. They're quite sweet, no sharper than oranges, but with a lovely floral citrus flavour. In Vietnam I was often served wedges of pomelo as an after-dinner snack; you would just take a big bite and suck the fragrant juice out of the pithy membranes. They were delicious.
However, one of the most famous pomelo dishes is the pomelo salad. Found all over south east Asia, this is an incredible combination of sweet pomelo pieces, crunchy vegetables, and a classic south east Asian salad dressing: a fusion of hot, salty, sour and sweet flavours, usually comprising lime juice, chilli, fish sauce and brown or palm sugar. It might sound an odd combination, but the sweet, bursting pomelo against the zingy dressing, coupled with the crunch of vegetables is amazing.
There are often other ingredients too. In Hoi An I had a pomelo salad with chicken and prawns, a combination that works very well indeed - the mellow flavours of the meat and seafood provide a perfect foil to the zesty pomelo madness going on around them. Often, toasted peanuts are scattered over the dish, both to add texture and a delicious rich toasty flavour that works so well with the other very zingy ingredients. The vegetables may vary, but usually you find carrot and cucumber, in shreds. Sometimes peppers, or beansprouts. There are sometimes shallots, for a savoury earthy flavour. Lots of fresh herbs - mint and coriander, mostly, but perhaps Thai basil.
I knew I had to recreate a pomelo salad, having enjoyed it so much in Vietnam.
I decided to render it a more substantial meal by adding noodles. Specifically, cooked slippery rice noodles, to provide a calming squidgy backdrop to all the other intense flavours. The rest is all there, though - crunchy julienned vegetables, loads of vibrant fresh herbs, a zingy dressing of lime juice, rice vinegar, fish sauce and brown sugar, and the ever-important scattering of toasted peanuts. Then there are big chunks of torn pomelo flesh, lending their sweetness and juicy yet crunchy texture. I decided to go down the prawn route, because they have a lovely sweetness and a meaty crunch that is excellent paired with the other ingredients. To keep the flavours Asian, I pan-fried the prawns with ginger and lemongrass.
I've generally never felt very comfortable cooking Asian food; it's one of the cuisines I'm least familiar with. This has changed recently, though, as I've started cooking more and more of it. To get to the point where I can invent my own Asian-inspired recipe is a pretty big achievement for me.
Even more so, this thing is absolutely insanely delicious. If you can't imagine how it would all work together and taste, make it and be blown away. It's just got the perfect combination of textures and flavours, as south east Asian food so often does. Mellow slippery noodles, zesty dressing, juicy prawns, sweet pomelo, perfumed herbs and toasty peanuts. That's the best I can do to describe it, so if you want to know more, get into the kitchen and make one yourself. You can often find pomelos in big supermarkets and Asian grocers.
Asian pomelo salad with lemongrass prawns and peanuts (serves 2-3):
- 100g thin, flat rice noodles
- 1 carrot
- 1/4 cucumber
- 3 spring onions
- A large handful chopped mint
- A large handful chopped coriander
- 100g mange tout
- Half a large pomelo, or one grapefruit-sized one
- 1 stick lemongrass
- A 1-inch cube fresh ginger
- 200g raw prawns
- 1 tbsp garlic-infused olive oil, or sesame oil
- 3 tbsp peanuts, toasted in a dry pan then roughly chopped
For the dressing:
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 3 tsp brown sugar
- 2 tsp rice vinegar
- 1 tsp garlic-infused olive oil
- 1 red chilli, finely chopped
- 1 tsp chopped fresh ginger
- Juice of half a lime, plus extra lime wedges to serve
First, soak the noodles in boiling water until soft (5-15 minutes, depending on your brand/thickness). Drain, rinse in cold water and set aside.
Slice the cucumber into thin batons. Grate the carrot. Thinly slice the spring onions lengthways. Place them all in a large bowl with the herbs. Steam or boil the mange tout for 1-2 minutes then finely slice lengthways and add to the bowl. Add the noodles and toss together well.
Prepare the pomelo by slicing it into quarters, slicing off the thick skin with a knife and then using your fingers to prise the flesh away from the pithy membranes. Tear the flesh into bite-sized chunks. Add it to the noodles and mix together well.
For the dressing, mix all the ingredients together in a small jug. Pour it over the noodle mixture and toss together. Divide the mixture between 2-3 plates or bowls.
Finely chop the lemongrass and ginger. Heat the garlic/sesame oil in a non-stick frying pan, then add the lemongrass and ginger. Cook for a minute or so, then add the prawns, cooking on each side for a couple of minutes until cooked through. Place the prawns on top of the noodle salad, then scatter over the peanuts. Serve immediately, with lime wedges to squeeze over.