Depending on the season, some tropical fruits, such as mango, kiwifruit and papaya are easily found at the supermarket. But, what about odd-looking, lesser-known fruits such as dragon fruit, kiwano melon, rambutan and pomelo? Sometimes locating those fruits require a trip to an Asian market. And, the more exotic the fruit, the more you’ll likely pay. Although expensive (seven dollars for one dragon fruit and six dollars for the kiwano melon), I was intrigued enough by the novelty of the fruit to lay down the cash and head home for a chance to samaple the flavors and textures of foods I hadn’t eaten before. Depending on your budget and sense of adventure, new taste experiences can be hard to come by, but tropical fruits are relatively easy to explore and, in the scheme of things, affordable. So, here’s the lowdown and a guide to some of the tropical fruits you might encounter. When shopping for tropical fruit, keep in mind that if your chosen fruit requires further ripening, it should be done at room temperature. Only fully ripened fruit should be refrigerated – and for as brief a time as possible. In terms of color, drama and sheer effect, the beauty of these fruits are not just skin. They are also remarkably good for you.
Sue Ade is a syndicated food writer with broad experience and interest in the culinary arts. She has worked and resided in the Lowcountry of South Carolina since 1985 and may be reached at email@example.com.
The dragon fruit plant is a kind of cactus grown in Southeast Asia, Mexico, Central and South America, and Israel. Some states in this country are also cultivating the fruit. Pink-skinned, white-fleshed dragon fruit is the mildest of the varieties and the most plentiful. Red-fleshed dragon fruit is sweeter and yellow-skinned dragon fruit is the sweetest of all. The fruit tastes something like a pear, with the crunch of a kiwifruit and the texture of watermelon. I loved it and found it extraordinarily pleasant to eat, especially when sprinkled with a bit of lime juice.
Handle dragon fruit like melon, scooped out of its skin with a spoon, cut into cubes or formed into balls with a melon baller. Store ripe dragon fruit in the refrigerator for up to three days.
Native to Africa, but grown in this country, Chile, Australia and New Zealand, bizarrely-beautiful kiwano is in the cucumber and melon family, with a flavor that uniquely tastes like both, but just a bit more sour. Profusely seeded, it’s the jelly-like substance, which surrounds the seeds, that you are after. Most people suck out the flesh and spit out the seeds. (Best done in private.) The texture reminds me of cooked tapioca pearls, and it’s quite pleasant if you like that sort of thing. No matter your preference, the good looks of the fruit far exceeds whatever hang-up you may have about gelatinous, full-of-seeds fruit that is every bit as bright as glittering lime-green Jell-O.
Mango, rumbutan, pomelo, kiwi and papaya
Native to South Asia, vivid, yellow-fleshed mangoes are a staple in the equatorial regions of the world. They have been cultivated in India, since 2000 B.C. Mangoes, which range in color from greenish-yellow to red-blushed, are highly aromatic. Coming in all sizes, when purchasing a mango, be sure to give it the “sniff” test. Gently press the stem end, and bring it to your nose. Fresh mangoes possess a sweet scent, tight flesh - – and a very large seed (stone). To remove the seed and cut the mango: stand the mango upright on a cutting board. On the flatter side of the mango, slice through the mango, curving your knife around the seed. Repeat on the other end. Place mango on cutting board skin side down. Score the flesh, down to the skin, but not through the skin, in a checkerboard design; for slices only, slice in one direction. Gently push up on the skin and cut the flesh away.
Larger than other citrus fruits, pomelos originated in Malaysia and Indonesia. Much of its size comes from its skin, which is loose and easy to remove. The flesh of a pomelo, which tastes very much like grapefruit, is sweet and juicy and readily breaks into segments. One of the most pleasurable aspects of eating a pomelo lies in its crisp texture. Pomelos are pale green to yellow when ripe and delicious in salads
Native to Indonesia and Malaysia, rambutan is also cultivated in many areas of Southeast Asia. They are small in size, vary in color and look, well, “hairy” – something like a sweet chestnut. Choose rambutan that is somewhat firm to a gentle squeeze, with spikes that do not look dried out. Rambutans hold a slightly almond-flavored seed, which some people eat (I don’t), and when the skin is peeled away, flesh that resembles a large grape. The flavor is similar to a grape, too – not too sweet and not too sour, but with a “gummier” texture. I’ve only seen and eaten bright crimson-colored rambutan. Rambutans, which grow in clusters, do not ripen further once removed from rambutan trees, so if you are not planning to enjoy them right away, they may be refrigerated for a day or two after purchase. You can eat a rambutan by cutting the skin horizontally, half way around the fruit. Pry open the fruit and squeeze it until it “pops” out, making sure to catch any juices inside the fruit. Enjoy rambutans as is, or mixed into fruit salads.
Native to China, kiwifruit is small but powerful and holds more nutritional qualities than papaya, mango or oranges. When purchasing kiwi, select those that yield to gentle pressure, avoiding those that are soft, bruised or have shriveled skin. If kiwis do not yield to pressure, they can be left to ripen for a few days at room temperature, away from sunlight. Ripe kiwi can be stored either at room temperature or in the refrigerator for several days. Kiwi may be cut in half and the flesh scooped out with a spoon, or peeled with a paring knife and sliced. (Although many people do not like the “fuzzy” skin of kiwi, even when the fuzz is brushed off, the skin is edible.) With its translucent emerald-green sweet flesh that tastes, to some, something like a strawberry with crunchy black seeds, kiwi makes an attractive addition to many kinds of dishes. Because kiwi becomes soft after it is cut, and acts as a tenderizer for foods with which they are mixed, kiwi should not be cut until you are ready to use them.
Due to the popularity of papayas, they have become more available in recent years. Originally from southern Mexico and the Central and northern South regions of the Americas, papaya is now grown in most tropical areas. The flesh of a papaya is a rich orange color (think salmon), with either yellow or pink tones. Papayas have a soft, buttery consistency and mild, sweet floral taste. Although somewhat bitter, with a peppery flavor, papaya seeds, which are enclosed in a gelatinous-like substance, are edible. Papayas with a reddish-orange skin that yield to gentle pressure, are ready to eat. If your papaya is mostly green with a few splotches of yellow color, it will need a few more days to ripen, at room temperature. Avoid papayas that are totally green and hard, as well as those that are overly soft or bruised. Once fully ripened, store papaya in the refrigerator for up to two days. To eat papaya, slice lengthwise, scoop out the seeds at eat like a melon, cut into pieces, shaped into balls with a melon baller or sliced into wedges. (Papaya is good sprinkled with lemon or lime juice.) Blended with strawberries, bananas and yogurt, papaya is frequently used to make smoothies and cold soups. Papaya contains an enzyme that tenderizes meat and is, therefore, useful in homemade marinades. (To use papaya is a marinade, purée it first.) Keep in mind, however, that the same enzyme that can tenderize meat will prevent gelatin from setting, so don’t use papaya in congealed dishes.