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Ten Exotic Fruits: Novel Treats to Drink and Eat
Ever eaten a Buddha's hand? No? How about a custard apple, rambutan, yumberry, or dragon fruit? These are just a few among many strange-looking but tasty exotic fruits. Though not as bizarre (or cruel) as the people-eating plant in the musical Little Shop of Horrors, they are about as odd as their names imply. Some are beautiful and some as ugly as ugli-fruit (a grapefruit hybrid). Read on to see photos of ten obscure exotic fruits, learn more about these products, and find out where they can be purchased.
According to ABC News, exotic fruits and vegetables represent 1% of all produce sales.
Below is a "taste" of 10 exotic fruits. These were not selected because they were the most delicious of all exotic fruits. (I have tasted only 4 of them.) Rather, they are highlighted here for two or all 3 of these reasons: 1) They are so strange-looking that they've inspired colorful nicknames; 2) Americans have never heard of or, at least, never tasted them; and/or 3) We or someone we knew actually tasted them and could recommend them as good eating.
What does the word "exotic" mean to you? Here, we're using it to mean "unfamiliar" rather than "from another country." In fact, although the fruits discussed in this article originated in other countries, some are now grown in the U.S. Furthermore, some imported fruits that were once unfamiliar to Americans--such as pineapple, mango, papaya, kiwi, and pomegranate-- are now well-known to Americans, so we're not discussing them in this piece. This list is organized alphabetically by the fruits' more formal names, not their more well-known nicknames.
Carambola (star fruit): I just love the looks of this fruit! Slice it horizontally, and it looks like a star, usually 5-pointed. You can eat the waxy exterior. (Wash it well first!) Its color is yellow to green; it's best eaten when yellow with a slight green tint. Its taste, says the website Oddee, "is a complicated flavor combination that includes plums, pineapples, and lemons." Wikipedia describes the texture as crunchy and very juicy with a consistency similar to a grape and the taste as sweet with a tart undertone similar to a mix of apple, pear, and citrus fruits. (If you can't imagine that taste, well, neither could I.) A CDC (Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention) website explains that there are 2 types of star fruit, sweet and tart, but they don't taste much different. The CDC also says that this fruit is becoming more popular in the U.S. It's in season from July through February, so you may find it in general or ethnic supermarkets or produce stores during that time span.
The carambola has been cultivated in parts of Asia for hundreds of years. In the U.S., it is grown in both tropical and semitropical areas including Texas, Florida, Puerto, Rico, and Hawaii.
WARNING: This fruit should NOT be consumed by people with impaired kidney function.
Click here for more information about this.
The Internet tells all. For a recipe using star fruit, click here: http://www.fruitsandveggiesmatter.gov/month/star_fruit.html
Chinese bayberry (yumberry): Dr. Clair Hicks, a member of our Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board, took time, during his visit to China, to send us a description and photo of the Chinese bayberry. Here's what he said: "They are really quite good when fresh, a bit sweet with a tangy bite. They have about as much bite as an orange but are not as sweet and have a totally different flavor."
According to the website Nutritiousfruit.com, this product has been grown in China, Japan and Southeast Asia for at least 2,000 years. In addition to being eaten raw, the fruit is canned, dried, pickled, and made into juice or wine. Because it attracts insects, the preferred form of consumption is as juice or wine. The juice is now being imported into the U.S. from various countries where the tree commonly grows. It's extremely high in powerful antioxidants and is said to defend the body against cardiovascular and degenerative diseases.
Chirimoya (custard apple): The white interior (shown here) tastes delicious, similar to a pear but better. Its taste is usually described as a blend of several fruits. Its texture has been compared to a mushy pear, sherbet, or custard, depending upon where in the ripening process you halve it and devour it.
This fruit is grown in South Asia, South and Central America, and southern California. I purchased mine in a Vietnamese grocery store in Chicago. A website told me that it would take 5 days to ripen, but mine ripened in two days after being placed in a paper bag with a banana and an apple. (Thank you, ethylene!) I read online that the custard apple is ripe when the exterior gives a little to pressure (like a ripe avocado). I cut open my custard apple somewhere between the mushy pear and custard stages and ate it with a spoon. Next time, I'll let it ripen a bit more, but I was fearful of waiting too long, having been warned that, if I waited until the exterior turned all brown, the inside might be overripe and spoiled.
Fingered citron (Buddha's hand): A Los Angeles Times writer described the appearance of this fruit as "a cross between a lemon and a squid." At the end opposite the stem, the fruit splits into several segments that look somewhat like human, arthritic fingers. Hence, it's nickname. The photo at the beginning of this article is a fingered citron/Buddha's hand.
Buddha's hand is primarily used as an ornament. The rind is also used to make jam and to flavor spirits. The fruit has a strong aroma, sometimes compared to violets. The aromatic citrus oil is also used in perfumes and kept in homes as a deodorizer.
This weird-looking fruit probably originated in China or India. Imported into California in the late 19th century, it is now being planted in small-scale commercial orchards there. The peak for this fruit is late fall to early winter, so, during that period, you may be lucky enough to find one in your neighborhood store, especially if you live on the West Coast. But you may hesitate to make this purchase. A beautiful specimen could cost you $20.
Guava: You've probably heard of this one but perhaps never seen or tasted one. According to a Purdue University article, guava has been cultivated for so long that its place of origin is uncertain, though it probably originated in southern Mexico and/or Central America. In the U.S., it's grown in Hawaii, Florida, and some areas of California.
I found a lot of yellow guavas in a grocery store in Chicago on Devon Avenue, where the shoppers are mostly Indian and Pakistani. Though it's tasty raw, it's more commonly used after being cooked. My guava contained mostly hard, inedible seeds, very little of the delicious fruit. It would be easier, I believe, to enjoy the flavor in the many other forms such as jelly, juice, or nectar. The guava nectar I tried was delicious but high in sugar, as all sweet fruit juices are. In other countries, guava is used in many ways: in pies, cakes, puddings, ice cream, butter, chutney, relish, catsup, and more. In Hawaii, it's used in punch and ice cream sodas.
Pitaya (dragon fruit): This is the fruit of several cactus species. A New York Times writer described its exterior as "a hot pink bulb ringed with a jester's crown of curly greenish petals." Its mild taste is somewhat disappointing after the expectations stimulated by its outlandish appearance.
Cultivated mostly in Vietnam and Central and South America, some say it's on its way to becoming the new superfood in the U.S. If your community has a Chinatown, you might find it there, along with some paper dragons.
To consume this dragon, just cut it open and enjoy the flesh. According to the website Oddee, the flesh is "mildly sweet and low in calories." The texture is sometimes compared to kiwifruit because of its black, crunchy seeds. The seeds are eaten along with the flesh, but they're indigestible unless chewed. This fruit is also made into juice or wine. It's become the darling of top chefs, who like to use it in drinks. It's recommended for making smoothies.
Rambutan: The website Oddee calls this "the strangest looking fruit ever." Its name translates (from Malay, Indonesian, and Filipino) to "hairy," an appropriate moniker because the magenta exterior is decorated with a multitude of green-tipped "hairs." Inside, surrounding a relatively large seed, mine had a small amount of gummy edible material that was pleasant-tasting and similar to a pear.
To purchase one try a Filipino grocery store, click on one of the exotic fruit sites listed toward the end of this article, or click here: http://www.amazon.com/Melissas-Fresh-Rambutans-2-lb/dp/B000158YDY
I was fortunate enough to find a rambutan in a neighborhood Greek produce store that carries a large selection of imported products. I purchased a package of 4 for $2.38! It was a great bargain for a weird-looking item that's so much fun to show off.
Tamarind: This fruit has a brown crusty exterior that is easily cracked by hand (like a peanut). Inside is a brown edible fruit with a pulpy, pasty texture and a pleasant taste that's both sweet and sour. I couldn't find any elegant way to eat this product; I scraped it off with my teeth. Wikipedia says the young green fruit is too sour and acidic to be good eating; mine was brown and not that sour.
My tamarind came from Thailand and was purchased in an Asian grocery store in a Chicago suburb. Says Wikipedia, "Although native to Sudan and tropical Africa, Asia and Mexico are the largest consumers and producers of tamarind....In the United States, it is a large-scale crop introduced for commercial use." It's often used as an ingredient in savory dishes or as a pickling agent. It's also commonly an ingredient in jam, candy, sweetened drinks, and sorbets. Tamarind sauce is frequently used in Indian restaurants. Wikipedia has much more information about the many different ways it's used in different countries.
Tamarillo (tree tomato): Grown in subtropical climates throughout the world, this exotic fruit is native to the Andes of Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, and Bolivia. The fruit is egg-shaped. The color varies; the yellow and orange ones are the sweetest.
Wikipedia says that the taste has been compared to kiwifruit, guava, and passion fruit with a bit of tomato blended in. A tamarillo is eaten by scooping out the flesh from a halved fruit. "When lightly sugared and cooled, it's a breakfast dish." The fruit is also used in stews, chutneys, curries, and (combined with apples) in strudel.
The peak season for tamarillos runs from July to November.
Watermelon, squared: Novel eats can come from two different sources: 1) unfamiliar foods and 2) familiar foods that have been given a new twist. Obviously, square watermelon fits into the second group. It was invented by a Japanese farmer. Why square an oval? It's easier to package and ship in large quantities and perhaps easier to cut since it won't roll away. How is the shape changed? Simple. The fruit is grown in square boxes. As far as we know, these are available only in Japan. You probably don't want to purchase a square watermelon anyway since each one sells for the equivalent of about $83.
Where to buy exotic fruits: If you have no ethnic grocery stores in your area, you may want to order some exotic fruits online. Here are some links to online suppliers. Even if you don't want to buy any of their fruit, you'll enjoy seeing their photos of these strange fruits from all over the world. There are many more exotic fruits in addition to the ones listed in this article. If the recession hasn't treated you too badly and you're a generous person, a gift basket of exotic fruits is an interesting, unusual gift.
If the prices scare you away, you can enjoy many of these exotic flavors in juice or spirits.
1. Yes, these fruits are good for you (because of the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants) but not if they give you a food-borne illness. "Practice good hygiene," food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein urges. Be sure to take the usual precautions recommended for cleaning all raw fruits. Wash your hands before and after handling them. Rinse the fruit well before cutting. Consumer Reports ShopSmart magazine general recommendations for washing produce are the following: rinse under "briskly running water" for 20-30 seconds to remove surface bacteria and soil. Tender produce can be rubbed gently with a nylon brush. Produce with a bumpy exterior should be scrubbed with a brush. Then, drying with a towel may remove even more bacteria. If the outside is given a thorough washing and the fruit is cut with a clean knife, the inside should be safe to eat. Don't eat the outside.
After completing preparation of the fruit, wash and sanitize any surface the exterior touched--counter, plate, cutting board, and knife--so that you don't cross-contaminate (transfer pathogens from one food or location to another).
2. Go online and acquaint yourself with the characteristics of an exotic fruit you're planning to eat. Are the seeds poisonous? (For example, the center red bits of ackee, Jamaica's national fruit, are extremely poisonous.) Is this fruit dangerous for people with kidney ailments, as is the star fruit? Will this fruit interact with any medications you're taking? Wikipedia is a good source of detailed information on these exotic plants.
3. Exotic fruits are usually expensive even if you buy them in ethnic grocery stores.
4. Before you buy the juice or nectar, read the label. I didn't do that while still in the store. When I got my carton of passion fruit juice home, I discovered that it was only 25% juice, including both passion juice and orange juice. Moreover, it contained 29 grams of sugar, no huge surprise since sweet juices are generally high in sugar. But this product had added sugar, which, Dr. Regenstein points out, is often necessary to make a satisfactory drink. Finally, the juice had to be refrigerated after it was opened and consumed within 3 days. I couldn't drink all that sugar in 3 days, so I wound up throwing most of this product down the drain. If you need to control your sugar consumption, juices made from these exotic drinks may not be for you.
Regarding the shelf life of the unopened and open products: there may be no "use by" date, which would only be about the unopened product anyway. To find out how long to keep the opened product, you can call the manufacturer if there's a phone number on the label. You can also go to the manufacturer's website, click on "Contact Us," and ask your question. Simplest advice: serve exotic fruit juices to family members and guests as a novelty, and use it up quickly. Ditto for consuming the raw fruit.
Oddee: http://www.oddee.com/item_97133.aspx (Buddha's hand, pitaya, tamarillo, square watermelon)
Dr. Clair Hicks: (Chinese bayberry)
Author's IPad: chirimoya, guava, rambutan, tamarind
Clair L. Hicks, Ph.D., University of Kentucky, Dept. of Animal and Food Sciences
Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science
ShopSmart.org "Safer Eats" July 2012.
oddee.com "10 Most Exotic Fruits"
nutritiousfruit.com "Chinese Bayberry"
en.wikipedia.org "Carambola," "Cherimoya," Tamarillo," Tamarind"
drweil.com Q & A Library "Is Eating Star Fruit Dangerous?"
fruitsandveggiesmatter.gov "Fruit of the Month: Star Fruit" (a CDC website)
nytimes.com "A Fruit With a Future"
latimes.com "Introducing...Buddha's Hand"
abcnews.go.com "13 Weird Fruits and Vegetables: Exotic Produce"