Snake fruit is similar in size and shape to a fig, with a bulbous body that tapers to a point at one end. The fruit is encased in shiny, dark to light reddish-brown scales, which are sometimes covered in tiny spikes. Though it is scaly and prickly, and may look tough, the skin is actually quite thin and can be easily peeled off by breaking the tip. Underneath the snake-like skin lies three white or light yellow lobes of juicy pulp that look similar to large peeled cloves of garlic, with hard, flat, dark brown, inedible seeds inside. The pulp has a garlic or apple-like crunch, though some varieties can be drier and have a flaky texture, while others are more spongy and succulent. The complex tropical flavor of Snake fruit is often described as a blend of apple, pineapple, and banana. It has the sweetness of honey with an acidic finish, leaving a citrusy tingle on the tongue, and leaning more sweet or sour depending on the variety. Snake fruits grow on short-trunked palm trees, sprouting off the base of the palm in little clusters. The plants have large spiked stems and leaves, which can grow up to six meters long.
Snake fruit is in the Arecaceae or palm family, and is botanically classified as Salacca zalacca. It is known as Salak in Malaysia and Indonesia, but its thin, scale-like skin, very similar in appearance to that of a cobra or python, earned it the popular moniker, Snake fruit. There are actually about 30 different types of Snake fruit grown throughout their native land, and while many can be brutally bitter when raw and are used solely in cooking, the commonly cultivated types have a unique, sweet and sour flavor. Snake fruit is cultivated and sold year-round throughout Southeast Asia, such as in Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines, and has also been introduced to China, India, Australia, and many islands in between. Indonesia exports both fresh and canned Snake fruit to destinations from China, to the Middle East, to parts of Europe, but unfortunately the tropical specialty is still rather rare here in the United States outside of select specialty shops and Asian markets.
Snake fruit is called the Fruit of Memory in Indonesia because it is rich in potassium and pectin, both important nutrients for brain health and development. It also contains nutrients like thiamine, iron, and calcium, as well as vitamin C. Snake fruit is known for its antidiarrheal properties, which is why some people warn against eating too much of the fruit so that you don?t interrupt your regularity.
Most Snake fruit is eaten fresh, but it can also be candied, pickled, juiced, canned, dried, fried into chips, boiled with sugar into a sweet spread, or made into syrup. But first, you need to know how to properly peel it so that you don?t end up with cuts on your fingers. So to open it, start by pinching the tip to break the skin, carefully pull the tip off, and then peel against the grain of the scales to reveal the rest of the flesh. The yellow-white lobes of pulp have a very fine, film-like layer that can also be cleaned away, almost like peeling a boiled egg, and removing this coating can actually remove some of the astringent taste. Snake fruit pairs well with nuts and other tropical fruits, and its sweetly sour flavor works well in pies and jams. Be sure to avoid the seeds, unless it happens to be a young Salak pondoh variety from Java, which actually has edible seed kernels. In Thailand, Snake fruit is a popular on-the-go snack from street venders, and locals will sometimes dip the fresh fruit into a mixture of sugar and salt. In Indonesia, young, unripe Snake fruit is used in rujak, also called rojak in Malaysia, which is a traditional Southeast Asian fruit and vegetable salad dish with spicy palm sugar dressing.