Gac (Momordica cochinchinensis) is a Southeast Asian fruit found throughout the region from Southern China to Northeastern Australia, including Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam. It is commonly known as gac from the Vietnamese gấc or quả gấc (quả being a classifier for spherical objects such as fruit). It is known as mùbiēguǒ in Chinese and variously as red melon, baby jackfruit, spiny bitter gourd or cochinchin gourd in English. In Thai, it is pronounced fahk khao and taw thabu in Myanmar.
Gac fruit grows on vines. As Gac fruit matures, it goes from a bright neon green to a lush, deep red. The fruit appears spiky and dangerous, and indeed the outer layer of the fruit (the pericarp) is toxic. But this is not the part that is eaten. Only the squiggly insides of Gac fruit (called the arils), which look strangely like red intestines, are consumed.
Traditionally, gac has been used as both food and medicine in the regions in which it grows. Other than the use of its fruit and leaves for special Vietnamese culinary dishes, gac is also used for its medicinal and nutritional properties. In Vietnam, the seed membranes are said to aid in the relief of dry eyes, as well as to promote healthy vision. Similarly, in traditional Chinese medicine the seeds of gac, known in Mandarin Chinese as mù biē zǐ (Chinese: 木 鳖 子 meaning ‘wooden turtle seed’), are employed for a variety of internal and external purposes.
Nutrients and Phytochemicals
Typical of orange-colored plant foods, gac fruit contains carotenoids such as beta-carotene (provitamin A). Vietnamese children fed a rice dish containing beta-carotene from gac had higher blood levels of beta-carotene than those in the control group. Gac aril oil contains high levels of vitamin E. Fatty acids in the aril oil may facilitate absorption of fat-soluble nutrients, including carotenoids.
Due to its high content of beta-carotene and lycopene, gac extracts may be sold as a food supplement in soft capsules or included in a juice blend.
When buying Gac in Asian markets look out for fruits that have a strong orange to red colour as this is a good indicator of ripeness.
Basically there are seemingly two ways to use a Gac Fruit. One is as a juice and the other is to add it to rice. This second option is very traditional in Vietnam. In a dish called xôi gấc, the aril and seeds of the fruit are cooked in glutinous rice which gives the rich an attractive colour and distinctive taste.