When I think of fall, I think of apples and pumpkins, and then of course their sister scents of cinnamon and nutmeg. But while daydreaming of summer fruits, it struck me recently that all I got in my imagination were…fruits. No spices, no flavorings. It seemed a little odd, because seasoning fruit is actually common in many cultures, from Mexico to Thailand. In Taiwan, where my parents are from, watermelon is often served with a dusting of finely ground suan mei, or Chinese salt-dried plums. The salty-winey-sourness of the powder gives the melon a kick and brings out its honeyed, flowery nature. It underlines its juiciness.
Using traditional taste combinations from different cultures as a guide to symbiotic magic, I started looking for new old ways to eat my fruit, and have been merrily sprinkling, dusting, and pouring all kinds of seasonings in my fruit bowl. What happens is often wonderful, sometimes transformative, and always interesting—it's easy to become spiced-fruit obsessed. Here are some combinations and seasoning mixes to get you started, too. (Most of the combinations below are best if the seasoning is ground as finely as possible, either with a mortar and pestle, spice grinder, or food processor. With all of these, season the fruit to taste.)
India by way of France: Mangoes with vadouvan
In India, fruit chaat is a popular street food, combining fruits such as papayas and bananas with spice mixes of headspinning complexity. Lately, the chef world has been in love with the French-Indian mix called vadouvan. Wonderfully fragrant, it's anchored by a combination of dried aromatics —onion, shallot, garlic—whose savoriness makes the juiciness of fruit all the more refreshing, with warm notes of cumin, fenugreek, and cardamom, among other spices (variations abound). It makes for a surprising undercurrent for fruit, and ripe mango, especially, takes to the tantalizing turmeric and curry leaves in it. If you want to get back to the old school, you can also try making your own chaat masala: Combine 2 teaspoons amchoor (dried mango powder), 1 teaspoon each cumin and coriander seeds, toasted and ground, 1/2 teaspoon black salt, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, and a pinch each of asafetida and chile powder.
Watermelons, melons, guava, or tomatoes with suan mei, sumac, or tamarind
Either whole or powdered Chinese salt-dried plums, suan mei, are available in many Asian markets. Apply generously to cut-up fruit; the acidity and edge of salt really underscore the fruits' sweetness and juiciness. If you can't find it, the spice sumac (found in Middle Eastern markets) or tamarind powder (Latino markets) have a similar tanginess. If you're using one of these substitutes, sprinkle on a tiny pinch of salt as well.
The Mexican way: Most anything with chiles and lime
Mexican fruit salad, pico de gallo de fruta, can consist of any mix of watermelon, pineapple, mango, coconut, oranges, and jicama, among other ingredients, but the key is dressing it with a combination of chile powder (or cayenne), salt, and lime juice. While it's not usually thought of as the fruit it is, cucumbers are particularly refreshing and delicious this way.
Strawberries and green tea; black sesame and every fruit you can find
In Japanese restaurants, you might find matcha salt, made with powdered green tea. I love the salt (1teaspoon of matcha and 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, crushed with a mortar and pestle) on strawberries, and especially on honeydew and cantaloupe; the tea's slight bitterness plays well with sugar (it's a popular flavor for many pastries and sweets), and its vegetal aspect draws out the floral qualities of these fruits. Or try substituting dried basil for the matcha. And finally, black sesame salt (2 teaspoons of black sesame seeds, ground with 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and, optionally, a touch of sugar) was my favorite of all the combinations I tried, adding a warm nuttiness to pretty much everything. In fact, once I ran out of fruit, I found that it was perfectly good licked from my fingers.
Thai chile-sugar-salt with pineapple or other sweet-tart fruits
In Thailand, a foil for sweetness comes from the burn of chiles. Thais use a mix called prik kab klua, chile sugar salt, which is sprinkled on green mangos and pineapple, but it works beautifully on any sweet and sour fruit, especially those with a refreshing crunch. To make prik kab klua, finely crush or mince 1 fresh Thai bird chile pepper, and mix with 1 teaspoon salt and 2 teaspoons sugar, or amp up the sugar and salt if you're more sensitive to chile heat. Also try cayenne or ground Sichuan peppercorn. Note, though – if you're sprinkling on this mix with your hands, wash them before going anywhere near your eyes!