This type of pineapple, a special species called the jen kee, was the subject of a bunch of interesting things I learned last week
Okay, maybe it’s because the weather here never changes — it’s always either hot as blazes and humid, or hot as blazes and raining — or maybe it’s because I’m monumentally ignorant of how seasons work here in the tropics, but up until last week, I had no idea that 1) the seasons do, in fact, change here; and 2) with each change in season brings changes in the availability of fruits and vegetables of this region, just like at home.
Last week, these seasonal changes finally caught my attention due to the sudden availability of a very special pineapple. In addition to the mind-blowing revelation that seasons affect fruit availability in Southeast Asia even though the temperature always remains the same, I also learned that there are lots of different species of pineapple in this region. Again, this might not surprise you, but for me, I might as well have discovered that the Snuggie isn’t the global phenomenon I’ve always assumed it to be.
My pineapple epiphany started with an article in Flavours, a food magazine published here in Kuala Lumpur that I read with somewhat irregular frequency. There’s a feature in this month’s issue that profiles the different types of pineapples and describing the qualities of each one — acidic, fibrous, sweet, and tangy. Near the end, in an almost hushed tone, there’s a page dedicated to the most coveted, rarest of pineapples — the jen kee (or yan kee). The jen kee is described in such exalted terms that it sounded to me like something I’d only get to see once in my life, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Most notably, the pineapple’s core is translucent and edible, and it’s not fibrous at all. Even rarer is that it’s only in season for about eight weeks a year — in May and in October.
The very next morning after reading about the coveted jen kee, I headed to the pasar malam (outdoor market) to stock up on our weekly supply of groceries. And, just like they say about true love, there it was, right in front of my face, simply because I happened not to be looking for it. On a table just a few steps away from me were two pale green, long-ish jen kee pineapples being carefully supervised by a gray-bearded vendor in his seventies. I stepped up to the table.
“Is this — are these — jen kee pineapples?” I asked.
He immediately picked both up and cradled them in his hands like newborn babies. “Yes. How did you know? Who sent you?”
Lest I spook the man any further, I took a step back and tried to talk in a calming tone. “No one — I read about these pineapples yesterday. Can I buy one?”
The man looked at his precious jen kees, then eyed me up and down. “Six ringgit,” he said, after sizing me up, which is equal to less than $2 US dollars. I forked over the dollars and held out my arms as the man carefully transferred one of them to me. “You enjoy that,” he said in Chinese, still looking slightly unwilling to part with his fruit. “It’s the best pineapple you’ll ever taste in your whole entire life.” That seemed like a bold statement coming from a man who will ever only know me for a total of 3 minutes, but I figured he had his reasons.
Backing away quickly from the man lest he change his mind and snatch my jen kee away from me, I took my $2 prized pineapple and headed back through the market, only to get stopped a few times along the way. Everyone wanted to know where I’d gotten the jen kee. Someone even offered to pay me double what I’d paid for it. I refused, and by the time I got the car, I felt like I was holding a golden ticket. I couldn’t wait to get home and try the sucker.
That night, with our visitors in town, I proudly took out my jen kee pineapple and rested it on the kitchen counter, explaining to them the magic I was hoping we’d all experience soon. It turns out that the jen kee is much paler than its more run-of-the-mill pineapple cousins, and oh my, is it ever so tasty. I’d also purchased a regular pineapple for us to do a side-by-side comparison, and let me tell you, the jen kee really is special. The flavor is pineapple-y goodness, without any of the acidity or toughness that a regular pineapple brings. The core is so tender you can eat it, too, and that’s exactly what we did.
In the days since we polished off that jen kee, I’ve been daydreaming about it every once in awhile. At the grocery store or the pasar malam, I’ll find myself scanning the fruit displays looking for one. I know it’s like trying to catch a rainbow, but at least I can say that, for a brief time, I got to eat that rainbow. And I’ll chase that feeling for the rest of my life.