7 Local Fruits and Their Legendary OriginsNovember 5, 2018
- Serna EstrellaWords
Long before entertainment meant plopping on a sofa in front of a flat screen (or tinkering away on a smartphone), our ancestors would amuse themselves by gathering around a fire and telling stories about the universe and how things came to be. While each story involves a magical element, they aren’t all like the wholesome Disney fairy tales we grew up with. Some are even gruesome enough to bring tears of joy to George RR Martin’s eyes.
Of course, we know these fruits are mere products of cross pollination and grafting, but that wouldn’t make for that good a bedtime story, would it? Though it could probably help you fall asleep just as easily.
1. Durian: A Love Potion Gone Wrong
This “king of the fruits” is notorious for its strong odor, which has been likened to everything from raw sewage to soiled underwear. Its thick, thorn-covered hide is also sharp enough to draw blood. Like the balut, it’s one Southeast Asian treat that foreigners and locals alike either love or despise. A 19th century British naturalist raved about its flesh, describing it as a rich, almond-flavored custard, but that didn’t stop certain hotels and some forms of public transportation from banning it. Anthony Bourdain, despite being a big fan of the stuff, compares post-durian breath to “French-kissing your dead grandmother.”
What”s the Story Behind It?
According to Philippine legend, the durian wasn’t always so ugly and smelly. It’s said that the spiked fruit originated in Calinan, Mindanao, back when its islands were still ruled by kings. One such king was called Barom-Mai, and he ruled with an iron fist. But powerful as he was, he couldn’t keep his young and beautiful queen from running off to her father’s kingdom every chance she got. (Barom-mai was no Ryan Gosling, you see.)
Desperate, the king consulted Impit Purok, a half-god hermit, on how to make his wife remain by his side. The hermit told the king to obtain three things: the egg of the black tabon, twelve ladles of fresh milk from a blemish-free carabao, and the nectar from the flower of the tree of make-believe. The king blanched at the hermit’s shopping list, but he was able to get all three items in the end, albeit with the help of some talking animals and an air nymph (and probably a Disney-esque song number or two).
Impit Purok was pleased at the completion of the task, but before he worked his magic, he made the king promise to make him the guest of honor at the feast celebrating the queen’s return. Barom-Mai agreed. The hermit carefully made a small hole in the tabon egg, poured the carabao milk and nectar into it, and stirred the mixture together with his magic bamboo stick. Impit Purok then told the king to plant the potion in his garden, and to make his wife eat the fruit of the tree that would spring from it.
Barom-Mai followed the hermit’s orders and indeed, his wife did fall in love with him after one taste of the smooth and fragrant enchanted fruit. Overjoyed, the king called for a big celebration, but consequently forgot to invite the hermit. Indignant at the snub, Impit Purok cursed the fruit, replacing its sweet fragrance with a nasty odor and covering its hide with thorns.
The fruit became known as durian, with duri being a native word for “thorn” and an from the queen’s name: “Anne.” Okay, I may have made up that latter half.
2. Mango: The Literal Broken Heart
Unlike the durian, the mango is inarguably the beloved darling out of all our local fruits. Mangoes thrive in the tropics, and are cultivated everywhere from the Carribean Islands to Southeast Asia. But it is the Philippine mango that’s famed throughout the world for its sweet nectar and especially succulent flesh.
What”s the Story Behind It?
There was once a man named Daeogdog who lived in a quiet village in the Aklan province. He was known for his quick, explosive temper and for always trying to get his way. Thus, it was no surprise when he forced his beautiful and gentle daughter, Aganhon, into an engagement with Maeopig, a young man who was as quarrelsome and domineering as he was. Aganhon pleaded with her father to cancel the engagement, but he flatly refused and kept insisting that his choice was the best.
On the day of the wedding, Aganhon was nowhere to be found. The bridal party searched high and low, until someone finally ventured into a nearby stream and stumbled upon the young bride’s motionless body, with a dagger sticking out of the poor girl’s chest. (I suppose she preferred to stab her own heart rather than give it to the pig she was supposed to marry.)
Stricken with grief and remorse, Daeogdog dreamt of his daughter on the night of her funeral. In the dream, Aganhon led her father to a tree that grew on the spot where they found her body. As soon as he awakened, Daeogdog rushed over to the stream and found the same tree, its branches heavy with bright yellow fruits that were shaped like hearts. He sampled one and found it to be as sweet and tender as the heart of the daughter whose feelings he callously disregarded. He called it “mango”/”mangga”, which meant “heart-shaped” in their ancient tongue.
The story doesn’t say how the smoke-belching kapre came to dwell in mango trees, but my brother reckons that Aganhon’s ogre of a suitor might have started the trend.
3. Guava: The Sultan Who Can”t Let Go
Guavas are sturdy fruits with green skins that turn light yellow as they ripen. Their fragrant, tart flesh ranges in color from stark white to salmon pink, and are flecked with hard, edible seeds. While ripe guavas are known to have a sweet, mellow flavor, unripe ones are used in local dishes like sinigang for their sour flavor.
What”s the Story Behind It?
Before the Spaniards landed in the Philippines, the island of Sulu was ruled over by a Sultan named Barrabas. He was selfish and cruel. And like a neurotic beauty queen, he was never seen in public without his crown.
One day, Sultan Barrabas was feasting on a massive banquet by himself when a beggar child appeared out of nowhere and begged him for a bite to eat. At first, the sultan ignored the kid and went back to gorging on his personal Spiral buffet. The child persisted in begging for a bite, and even resorted to tugging at the sultan’s leg to get his attention. In a fit of impatience, Sultan Barrabas grabbed a steaming bowl of soup and dumped its contents over the child’s head. The beggar boy then abruptly vanished, as the sultan collapsed to the floor. He died shortly after, and was given a funeral without much fanfare. (Gee, I wonder why.)
Some months after a new sultan was crowned, a tree took root on the previous ruler’s grave. On its branches hung fruits with protrusions on the bottom that looked like tiny crowns, much like the one that Sultan Barrabas never took off. It wasn’t long before people started calling the small green orbs “barrabas” (which later evolved to bayabas), after the king whose face and disposition was as sour as the fruits’ flesh.
4. Coconut: Adam and Eve Reimagined
Possibly the default symbol of the tropics, the coconut tree was dubbed the “tree of life” for its versatility. Its trunk makes for sturdy lumber, its leaves and husks are woven into decorative items, and its flesh and water are delicious as they are or in a variety of dishes. In the Philippines, buko juice is a popular thirst quencher and virgin coconut oil is touted as the cure for everything from limp hair to a sagging bottom.
What”s the Story Behind It?
Long ago, there were only three living entities in the universe. Each one was a powerful god, and believed that he was the only one of his kind in existence. There was Bathala, who ruled over a lonely and empty world, and Ulilangkalulua, a giant snake who presided over the clouds. Since his kingdom was also devoid of life, the snake god often visited the earth to explore its mountains and caves.
One earthly visit, Ulilangkalulua encountered Bathala and the two proud gods ended up battling each other for universal dominance (and perhaps, the best sunbathing spot on the planet). In the end, Bathala slew the snake god and burnt its giant carcass.
Years after the epic skirmish, the third god, a winged head named Galangkalulua, wandered into Bathala’s home. Instead of challenging the intruder to another battle, the earth god extended the hand of friendship to the floating head. Though Galangkalulua had no hand of his own to extend (being a disembodied head and all), he was still able to convey his acceptance.
The two lived happily for years, until the day Galangkalulua fell ill. Bathala nursed his friend devotedly, but it was to no avail. Before he died, the winged head asked his friend to bury his remains on the same spot where he burned the giant serpent’s body, and promised that what would emerge would help sustain the life that Bathala could create to keep him company.
Bathala honored his friend’s deathbed wish, and a remarkable tree came into being as a result. It had a hard, ringed trunk like the giant serpent’s body, fruits that looked like heads, and sweeping branches springing from behind the fruits like wings. Delighted, Bathala breathed life into the first man and woman, and the coconut tree provided for their needs and those of the generations that came after them.
In time, the fruit was named “buko” or “coconut” (from a 16th century word which means “head” or “skull”) for the three holes on its husk that resembled a human face.
5. Lansones: A Pinch Is All It Takes
Lansones grow in clusters like grapes, and have clear, translucent flesh that hides bitter, inedible seeds.
What”s the Story Behind It?
Lansones is actually derived from the word lason, which is Tagalog for “poison.” There was once a time when the pale yellow globes lived up to their sinister name.
The cream-colored clusters were said to have originated from Paete, Laguna. They were so poisonous that even the ants on its branches died on the spot. But all that changed when a kindly old man named Mang Selo paused to rest under a shady tree while passing through the thick Paete forest on his way home one morning. He looked about for some nuts and berries to eat, but to his dismay, only the notorious lansones trees were nearby.
Faint from hunger, Mang Selo fell asleep and dreamt of a beautiful angel who plucked a fruit from the lansones tree for him to eat. Sensing his reluctance, the heavenly being pinched the tiny fruit to draw out the poison. Mang Selo awakened to find fruit peelings on the ground next to him. His curiosity and hunger soon overcame his fear of the lansones, and he cautiously peeled one and bit into it. His gamble paid off, and he ended up relishing the fruit’s sweet, refreshing taste. In gratitude to the angel who had saved him from hunger, he spread the word that the lansones was no longer poisonous, and that the brown spots on its skin were the fingerprints of the benevolent spirit who pinched the poison away.
6. Makopa: A Magic Wishing Bell
The bell fruit, or the makopa, is a familiar sight in most tropical countries. Its skin ranges in color from white to red, with some varieties having black skin. Its flavor is similar to a pear’s, and its texture is not unlike that of a watermelon’s.
What”s the Story Behind It?
There was once a tiny village in northern Ilocos called Samtay. Unlike other areas, it was never devastated by typhoons or droughts. This was because a benevolent anito (spirit) once gifted its inhabitants with a magic bell as a reward for their kindness and generosity. Whenever the townspeople wanted anything (such as deliverance from a storm or famine), they would just ring the bell and whatever they wished for would be granted them.
Such a remarkable object doesn’t stay secret for long. Soon, the envious neighboring villages started planning to attack Samtay to steal the magic bell. Apo Anong, a Samtay elder, was visiting one such village when a friend warned him of the plot to invade his hometown. The old man hurried back to Samtay and took the bell deep into the surrounding forest. He rushed back to warn his people about the oncoming attack, but it was too late. The invaders from the other villages had arrived and angered by the sight of the bell missing from the village square, they ransacked every home. Apo Anong was among those who fought to defend the village and was slaughtered before he could reveal the bell’s hiding place to anyone.
Once the invaders had pillaged Samtay, they left the survivors to the task of rebuilding their village. Without the magic bell, the crops dried up and the rain refused to fall. The villagers suffered from scarcity and hunger for many years, until one of their children ventured into the surrounding forest in search of some wild berries to eat. The little boy stumbled onto an odd-looking tree with juicy red fruits dangling from its branches like little bells. Remembering his grandmother’s stories about the magical bell that once blessed their village, he ran back to tell everyone about his discovery.
When the whole village turned out to see the tree, they exclaimed “Makopa!” (which means “many cups”) at the bell-shaped clusters hanging from it. They dug around it to see if the legendary bell was buried underneath, but found nothing, so they uprooted the tree and replanted it back in the village square. Once the makopa tree’s roots had settled onto Samtay’s soil, the skies darkened and rain fell onto the parched earth.
7. Banana: You Know What They Say About Guys With Big Hands, Right?
Banana trees abound in the Southeast Asian landscape and are enjoyed by Filipinos in a multitude of ways. Whether it’s eaten as is, cut and dried into chips, or cooked into native delicacies like nilupak, the banana is one fruit you can always find a use for.
What”s the Story Behind It?
There was once a farmer named Mang Pedro who had a beautiful daughter. Mindful of their only child’s extraordinary beauty, Mang Pedro and his wife forbade Juana from consorting with young men. Since Juana was as dutiful as she was pretty (and didn’t have Facebook), she found it easy to obey her parents’ wishes. But one day, she chanced upon a handsome young farmer named Aging. The two quickly became enamored with each other.
Like any forbidden couple, Juana and Aging found ways to meet in secret. One day, Juana’s mother left to run some errands in town while Mang Pedro was out working the fields. Aging took the opportunity to visit Juana. The two were so engrossed in each other (doing God knows what) that neither noticed the sky growing dark. When Mang Pedro arrived home and saw Aging inside, the young man’s arm resting on the windowsill, he was enraged. Mang Pedro severed the unfortunate suitor’s arm with one swing of his razor sharp bolo.
Reeling from blood loss and shock, Aging ran out of the house. Juana chased after her suitor, but was unable to catch up with him. Night fell and the only sign of Aging that remained was his bloody, severed arm. Juana took it and tearfully buried it in their yard. Her act of devotion was rewarded the next morning, when a strange new tree sprang from their garden. It had a tall green stalk, graceful branches, and long yellow fruits that curved like fingers. The fruits came to be known as saging (the Tagalog word for “banana”), after the first guy in Philippine history whose hand (but thankfully, not any other part) got chopped off by his girlfriend”s angry father.
To those of us living in the Wikipedia age, these myths may sound fanciful and illogical (ridiculous even), but you have to admit that it’s a creative way to make sense of the world (especially when your vocabulary is devoid of the most basic scientific terms). Besides, one can’t deny that the passing of these stories from one generation to the next is a unique way to impart life lessons that are as true now as they were when man took his first bite of the coconut apple.
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Cuasay, P. (1991). Mga 55 Piling Alamat ng Pilipinas. Metro Manila: National Bookstore, Inc.
Sta. Romana-Cruz, N. (1993). Why The Piña Has A Hundred Eyes And Other Philippine Folk Tales About Fruits. Makati, Philippines: Ilaw ng Tahanan Publishing.
Whiteman, K. & Mayhew, M. (1998). The World Encyclopedia of Fruit. London: Lorenz Books.