Lots of alien but fascinating fruits have been turning up in American produce aisles lately. Colorful and peculiar, they have unfamiliar shapes, extraneous features like thorns or fuzzy hair and exotic tastes like cucumber melon and lemon peach. Many of their unusual combinations of flavors are nearly unrecognizable to Western palates.
Of course these exotic fruits are nothing new to their countries of origin where they’ve been savored for centuries. In Vietnam (where I am for the month), they are as common as apple pie. But for Westerners, it can be hard to figure out how to open the tropical fruits, let alone what to do with them.
Below are six exotic fruits and advice from the experts on how to incorporate them into your menu.
A sweetly flavored fruit with bright white or pink flesh and tiny black seeds, dragonfruit can be eaten right out of the skin. Just cut it in half, scoop out the flesh and chop it into bite-sized chunks. .
In Vietnam, we’ve been enjoying diced dragonfruit for breakfast and have observed that the exotic fruit also makes a great compliment to chocolate desserts. Or, try threading cubes onto skewers, grilling over medium-high heat and dusting with sugar for a hot-weather treat. Dragonfruit also tastes great mixed with other fruits and even vegetables like spinach in fruit smoothies.
Related to the lychee, rambutan has a rather off-putting fuzzy exterior. In Vietnam it’s referred to as ‘chom chom’ which means ‘messy hair.’ Our guide showed us how, if you turn the fruit upside down, you can break it apart at a long line that looks like a scar. Inside, the bright white fruit resembles a lychee nut.
OK, the eyeball-shape may be a little hard to get past, but the taste, which is similar to a lychee (with a hint of green grape) is light and delicious. High in antioxidants, rambutan is already being hailed by some as the Superfruit of the future. Eat its delicious flesh all on its own, or combine it with coconut and bananas in this delicious fruit juice recipe.
Often called ‘apple pears’ due to their resemblance to apples, Asian pears can vary in shape from spherical, to tapered, to round and flattish. Their skin can be green, yellow or bronze and have different textures. The above photo was taken of a green variety growing on a tree in southern Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
Asian pears are slightly hard, crisp and juicy, becoming more tart as you move closer to the core. The taste is similar to jicama, with a hint of pear. Although delicious, if you’re looking for a big juicy apple, this fruit is not for you.
Since Asian pears are only picked and sold when ripe, they can be a challenge to package and transport as their delicate skin is prone to bruising. You can see below some of the precautions taken by local Vietnamese merchants to protect them from damage.
Eat Asian pears raw, with or without the skin (which is so thin it is hardly noticeable.) These tropical fruits don’t darken as fast as apples, which makes them a great addition to salads. Try this Asian pear and arugula salad recipe from Food & Wine for a twist on an old favorite. Because of their high water content, Asian pears generally don’t work in pies, jams or jellies.
Considered the ‘Queen of all tropical fruits,’ mangosteen is a small-sized, purple skinned fruit with a cute little stalk and four-pronged cap. Its delicious white fruit, arranged in wedges, tastes like a blend of citrus and peach. To release the fruit, cut a circle around the stalk (like a pumpkin) and scoop out the flesh.
To spice things up a bit, drizzle mangosteen with lemongrass syrup, chamomile or lemon juice for an added punch of flavor. We learned that you need to eat them within a few days, however, or they turn hard as rock.
AFRICAN HORNED CUCUMBER
Also known as horned melon or kiwano, African horned cucumber is a cross between a melon and a cucumber. If you’re a fan of both the fruit and the vegetable, it’s a delicious twist.
Inside its armadillo-like shell, the soft, bright green flesh has edible seeds and tastes like a blend of banana, kiwi and cucumber.
Yes, it looks a little jelly-like and seed-heavy, but I promise you the fruit is light and delicious. If you’re not up to eating it out of the shell, turn it into a sauce with the food network’s recipe for grilled beef with horned melon sauce. You can also slice it into cubes or rounds for salads or use it as a substitute for vinegar in salad dressing, whisking the light-as-air flesh into a little olive oil.
Also called carambola, this exotic fruit takes its name from the five-pointed star shape it assumes once it’s sliced. The paper-thin greenish-yellow skin encloses crisp, tart flesh with an unusual blend of plum, pineapple and lemon flavors. Like kiwi, starfruit has already become a regular in many American food stores.
Below is how it looks growing on a tree in the Mekong Delta.
Select fruit with the least amount of green on the edges if you’re looking for optimal flavor. Starfruit is best appreciated as a fun-shaped garnish that adds a tangy note to salads. It also makes a great snack when sprinkled with a little cinnamon.