Embrace the Exotic With These Funky Fruits
Beyond common apples and oranges, there’s a whole world of weird and wonderful fruits to explore. Exotic and unique-looking produce is mostly native to tropical and sub-tropical regions of places such as Southeast Asia, New Zealand and South America, but now is grown in warm regions of other countries, too, including the United States.
While you might find some of these fresh fruits in your regular supermarket on occasion, they’re more widely available at Asian, Latin and gourmet supermarkets, or from online specialty produce purveyors. Growing seasons vary by location and fruit, with some growing year-round in temperate or tropical climates. Canned, jarred and dried fruits are available year-round, as are products made from these fruits, such as jellies and jams. Like other fruits, exotic options are typically good sources of vitamins A and C, potassium and fiber. Inside and out, their vivid colors, varying textures and sweet to tart tastes may be a pleasant surprise.
Their curious appearance may be one reason why specialty fruits are among six of the top 10 fastest growing categories in grocery stores, according to a 2015 Nielsen study. And Nielsen’s previous report found that dollar sales of fresh global and exotic items grew 9 percent in 2014. That’s not surprising, given the culinary trend of fusion cuisine and a desire to eat healthier. Restaurant chefs are looking for ways to infuse unique and unexpected flavors into their dishes — and once chefs jump on a trend, consumers typically follow.
Showcasing exotic fruits on television cooking shows also has helped introduce them more broadly to audiences who might otherwise never know what a dragon fruit looks like, for example. Traveling is another way consumers become familiar with foreign fruits; once they try it on vacation, they may look for the fruit upon returning home. It’s hard to remember, but mangoes and kiwis once were considered “exotic” and now they’re everyday staples in many people’s grocery carts.
Not a true lime, yet a member of the citrus family, finger limes are native to Australia and also are known as “caviar limes.” Filled with juicy greenish-white or pink sacs that burst when bitten, they have a perfume-y flavor reminiscent of lemon, lime and a hint of fresh herbs. Usually eaten fresh, finger limes also can be made into marmalade.
Although similar in name, mangosteen is not related to the mango. Its white, juicy, segmented flesh is more similar to a tangerine, with a sweet-tart flavor that melts in your mouth. Its hard, thick and tough dark rind is difficult to open but worth the effort.
A smaller relative of the lychee, longans have a translucent white, soft pulp that surrounds a large black seed. When cut in half, it resembles an eyeball, earning this fruit its nickname: dragon’s eye. In China, longans are sometimes dried and added to tea for special occasions.
This grenade-shaped member of the cactus family (also called “pitaya”) has a leathery exterior ranging from yellow to bright pink with lime-green spiny tips. Flecked with tiny black seeds, its juicy flesh can be white or red and has a refreshing and light flavor.
Similar to lychees but not as juicy, the rambutan got its name from the Malay word for hair because its rind is covered in dark, soft bristles. It has a single seed surrounded by flesh that is grape-like in texture, with a sweet, delicate flavor.
Native to China and widely grown in Japan, loquats are picked ripe, so they spoil quickly and bruise easily; therefore, they’re usually found fresh only in areas where they’re grown. U.S. loquats are harvested from March to June in coastal areas, including Santa Barbara and San Diego. Dried or canned loquats are available at many Asian markets.
Several varieties of guava are available varying in size (small egg to apple), shape (round or pear-shaped), texture (rough or smooth- skinned) and color (yellow, green, red or purple-black, with flesh that is pale yellow to bright red), and with small edible seeds or seedless. To eat fresh, guava should be very ripe.
Known also as a “kiwano” or African horned cucumber, this bright yellow-orange fruit has horns that make it look like a small spacecraft. Its jellylike interior has a mild flavor that tastes like a combination of banana and cucumber.
Native to Peru and more recently grown in Spain and California, among other places, cherimoya’s green, leathery, scaly skin is reminiscent of a globe artichoke, while its white, custardy flesh is peppered with black seeds. Cherimoya has a delicate flavor suggestive of banana and pineapple. Serve it chilled and halved for scooping.
A relative of the breadfruit and fig, jackfruit is the world’s largest fruit — it can weigh up to 100 pounds. Inside, its many edible starchy seeds are encased in irregular clumps of yellow flesh that can be eaten raw, cooked, dried or pickled. Jackfruit has gained popularity as a meat replacement for vegetarian versions of foods such as tacos and pulled pork.
This edible fruit from the passion flower is also known as “granadilla.” The most common variety looks like a purple egg and has a sweet-tart flavor and strong tropical scent. Since there is only a small amount of golden, jelly-like filling, passion fruit often is used as a flavoring.
Kerry Neville, MS, RD, works in nutrition communications in Seattle.