Change Up Your Menu With These Six Exotic Fruits

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.


Pair of dragonfruits displayed in a dish

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. . 

White flesh and tiny black seeds of dragonfruit

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. 


Bowls of fresh rambutans

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. 

White fruit of rambutans

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.


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. 

African horned melon or cucumber

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.


Ho Thi Ky Flower Market: A Taste Of Old Saigon In Ho Chi Minh City

Fresh lotuses at Ho Thi Ky Flower Market

When I travel, I like to go where the tourists are not. So on Thursday I was thrilled to visit Ho Thi Ky, the largest flower market in Ho Chi Minh City. Still relatively unknown to the traveling public, it bustles with the colors and aromas of a bygone era. We arrived in the early morning, right after the all-night deliveries had been completed, and  were rewarded with an insider’s look at the vibrant hub that supplies the bulk of the city’s flowers.

Buyer loading motorbike with fresh flowers in Vietnam

Morning buyer stocking up his bike for delivery to the city

About Ho Thi Ky Flower Market

Located about 2 and a half miles from the city center, Ho Thi Ky is the largest wholesale flower market in Ho Chi Minh. Established in the 1980’s, it supplies all of the hotels, pagodas, office buildings and flower sellers in the city. Buyers buy in bulk, arriving in the wee hours of the morning to choose from among thousands of flowers harvested from the surrounding countryside the previous day.

A peek at the official Ho Thi Ky website reveals the curious statement:

“We receive a lot of calls from customers also, opponents”

Wall mural pointing to Ho Thi Ky flower market

Mural on a wall leading to the Ho Thi Ky flower market

Our guide for the morning was Mai Truong, who set the tone for the day by informing us that she was named after the cherry blossom. Truong explained that in Vietnam, girls’ names are generally composed of beautiful images like blossoms or rivers combined with positive attributes like gentleness or faith. Often two names are combined to designate a specific flower.

“Vietnamese women are like flowers. We hope for men to pass by and say ‘Oh that’s beautiful,’” she said. Then we jumped into her car and sped off to the market.

Roses for sale at Saigon's largest flower market

Roses newly arrived from the countryside

Ho Thi Ky flowers pull all-nighters

The action begins at Ho Thi Ky Flower Market around the time the city’s bars get busy; that is, from 10 pm to midnight. This is when the first trucks loaded with fresh flowers begin arriving from the country. Most of the flowers come from Dalat, also known as The City of Flowers. Located in the southern part of the Central Highlands region, the town sits on a plateau about 4,900 feet above sea level. The area’s year-round cool weather, a sharp contrast to Vietnam’s tropical climate, is the perfect environment for growing flowers.

Among the flowers Dalat is most famous for are hydrangeas, mimosas, orchids, Japanese sunflowers and all colors and varieties of roses.

Fresh flowers for sale at Saigon's largest flower market

Vendor opening deliveries at Ho Thi Ky flower market

Vendor unpacking fresh flowers at Ho Thi Ky flower market

Still other flowers make their nighttime arrival from the maze of rivers and rice patties known as the Mekong Delta. These flowers, Mai observed, are often larger and brighter than the same species coming from Dalat due to the difference in climate, soil and temperature. They include daisies, marigolds, lilies, dahlias, roses, lisianthus, cockscomb and chrysanthemums. Fresh flowers newly arrived at Ho Chi Minh flower market

A small proportion of flowers arrive by air from Thailand, Japan and China.

Orchid blossoms for sale at Ho Thi Ky flower market

Single orchid blossoms for sale at the market

Truong explained that with only one main road leading from Dalat, the late-night traffic can be downright scary. ‘It all depends on how crazy the driver is,” she said. Normally the trip down from the mountains takes 5-6 hours. But time is of the essence when it comes to fresh flowers, so drivers often throw caution to the wind.

As the flowers arrive, vendors work all night long to cut, trim and package the flowers for early morning buyers. Flower sales start at Ho Thi Ky market, but can sometimes go through five or more middle men before ending up in a vase in the city. We found the woman below busily pulling flowers from boxes, inspecting them for quality and tossing many in the trash. Mai explained that since the flowers cost less than the labor to cut them, vendors don’t hesitate to discard all but the finest specimens.

Vendor cutting flowers at Ho Chi Minh flower market

Vendor preparing flowers for sale

Still, much of the flower business remains steeped in superstition. Although it would make sales more direct, vendors seldom provide phone numbers to clients unless they are well known. Otherwise, Mai explained, they ‘May be playing a joke.’

As for ordering on-line, well that’s still a thing of the future.

Market etiquette: Don’t block the stand

Flower selling is serious business and curious tourists aren’t the most welcome of guests. It helped to have Mai, not only for her language skills, but for her ability to chat up the vendors so they would talk about themselves and their product. Rule Number One: never stand in front of a stand unless you plan to buy. Not only is it annoying, it’s bad luck for the vendor.

Dog guarding flower deliveries at Ho Thi Ky flower market

This dog showed us who’s boss at his owner’s shop

We shuffled off to the sides of those shops that most interested us while Mai engaged the families in conversation. Weary from the early-morning sales, some were wrapped in hammock cocoons, strung from the rafters in the back of the shop. Others were cutting and adding to their displays of flowers.

Vendor displaying flowers at Ho Chi Minh City's Ho Thi Ky market

To break the monotony, a couple merchants brought out their fighting cocks. Although illegal, cock fighting remains a an interest at Ho Chi Minh’s largest flower market. Many vendors keep one or more cocks in domed cages at the back of their shops.

Fighting cock on motorbike at Saigon flower market

One of many fighting cocks at the market

The flowers

From what we observed, the main flowers for sale in the market included hydrangeas, roses, lilies, carnations, orchids, heliconias, sunflowers, chrysanthemums and lotuses. There were also many unusual plants sold as ‘fillers’ including dyed grasses, berries, eucalyptus and tropical foliage.

Dyed grasses for sale at Saigon flower market

Orchids for sale at Ho Chi Minh's largest wholesale flower market

Among the plants sold by the woman pictured below were cypress sprigs. Mai explained that the feathery-leaved evergreens are sold as complements to the florals but also to encourage smart study. Tradition goes that if you place a cypress sprig in the book you are studying it will help commit the subject to memory.

Vendor displays cypress sprigs at Ho Thi Ky flower market

Displayed in bright plastic pails, the many different-colored lotuses told a story all to themselves. Although they arrive tight in the bud, many vendors choose to manipulate their looks by folding back some of their petals. Depending on his or her personal artistry, some vendors will create lotuses with more layers than others, therefore appealing to different buyers.

‘Everybody is an artist here’ Mai said

Lotuses for sale at Ho Chi Minh's largest wholesale flower market

Vendors use artistry to ‘unfold’ the lotuses

All told, there are about 100 trading households with 5 to 7 workers each at the Ho Thi Ky market. Many are families who have passed on their skills to their children. On a normal day, the market receives about 1000 flower boxes with the number jumping to 2000 to 3000 before the Lunar New Year. Prices range from VND 30,000 (approximately $1.30) for 10 roses, to VND 90,000 (a little under $4) for a bouquet of lilies.

After the morning rush: view of the Ho Chi Minh's Ho Thy Ki flower market

Streets are empty at Ho Thi Ky by the end of the morning

The Ho Thi Ky market is located in District 10 at 57 Alley Ho Thi Ky Market or 374 Alley Le Hong Phong, about a 20 minute cab ride from the city center.


Clear the Air With These 10 No-Fuss Houseplants

Peace lilies can help clear the air of harmful toxins

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans on average spend 90 percent of their time indoors. And stagnant indoor environments can trap harmful chemical toxins as well as bacteria, pollen and mold. It’s enough to make a person sick (literally). But, luckily for mankind, houseplants may offer a solution.

Sick Building Syndrome

People began to realize a few decades ago that as indoor air pollutants build up, they can unleash a variety of health problems. Headaches, dizziness, skin rashes and itchy eyes were the most common complaints; however, some conditions were severe enough to require hospitalization. Poorly ventilated spaces only seemed to make matters worse. To describe the phenomenon, the term ‘sick building syndrome’ was coined.


Super-insulated, modern buildings can reduce the flow of good air

In 1989, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), together with the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA) set about trying to determine the cause. They conducted a study that produced some surprising results. It indicated that the same innovations that had made office spaces and homes more energy efficient had also sealed people in, creating a form of superinsulation that had significantly reduced the flow of good air.

And, good air flow was only half of the story. The study also found that airtight buildings trapped harmful emissions from synthetic building supplies, furnishings, carpets, cleaning products and ink. Even paper products such as toilet paper and paper towels were giving off pollutants with disastrous effects on human health.

How houseplants can help

This news was troubling to say the least. Through further study, though, NASA came up with a plan. They hypothesized that indoor plants might offer a solution.

To test their theory, NASA ran experiments over a two-year period with plants, exposing their leaves, roots and soil to indoor airborne chemicals. The results were startling. NASA discovered that through photosynthesis many common houseplants were able to remove large quantities of harmful toxins from the air. In fact, houseplants represented a significant tool for solving indoor air pollution problems overall.


Indoor plants can remove harmful toxins from the air

The NASA list of top air filtering plants was first compiled as a means to understanding how to clean the air in space stations. It has now become the standard for those of us on earth that are looking for ways to improve our environments. Although some progress has been made in reducing and/or eliminating some of these harmful chemicals, there is much work still to be done. Meanwhile, houseplants can offer homeowners an important first line of defense.

NASA suggests that the best efficiency is achieved with at least one houseplant per 100 square feet of home or living space. Follow these general watering tips to keep your plants looking their best.

Here are ten top houseplants that made the NASA list:


This easy-to-grow succulent is perhaps best known for its healing properties. Gel from the plant’s thick, pointed leaves is full of vitamins, enzymes and amino acids which can sooth skin burns and cuts. Lesser known is that aloe can also absorb toxins that are byproducts of cleaning products and paints. It produces brown spots on its leaves when chemical exposure becomes excessive.

aloe plant

Plant care tip: Aloe likes lots of sunlight and cool temperatures (hovering around 70 degrees.) Like all succulents, it prefers dry soil, so avoid frequent watering.


The bamboo palm, also known as the areca palm, is a small palm that packs a big punch. In addition to producing flowers and tiny, orange-red fruit, the multi-stemmed plant is great at filtering out benzene and trichloroethylene (which you may unwittingly bring home with your dry cleaning). It is considered superior at clearing out formaldehyde and even xylene, which is present in gasoline, glues and some paints and varnishes.

bamboo palm

Plant care tip: The bamboo palm needs lots of water and thrives in bright light. Cut off brown stems as needed to keep the plant looking neat. Taller plants may need staking.


The long, blade-like leaves of ‘Silver Queen’ are dark green with silver variegation and grow upwards on multiple stems before flopping over. Variegation makes this low-maintenance houseplant a standout in any corner. In addition to its graceful shape, Silver Queen also filters out benzene and formaldehyde emitted from inks, paints and dyes and many household cleaning products.

Chinese evergreen 'Silver Queen'

Plant care tip: Chinese evergreen prefers indirect sun and moderate temperatures. Direct sunlight will scorch the leaves. Trim off any yellow or dead leaves as needed and wipe leaves periodically with a damp rag to remove dust.


A fast growing vine with trailing stems of bright green variegated leaves, golden pothos stays green even when it’s kept in the dark. Perhaps that’s why it’s also known as Devil’s Ivy. Pothos works well in hanging baskets or cascading off the side of a table or bureau. It also absorbs formaldehyde.

Golden pothos

Plant care tip: Cut back long stems as needed to keep the plant looking full and healthy. One of the most resilient houseplants, pothos will survive even in low light conditions. Some sun, however, is necessary to keep its leaves’ variegation. It’s best to allow soil to dry out between waterings.


Cited by NASA as the number one best air-filtering houseplant, English ivy adds a timeless elegance to any room where it brightens up dark corners with its variegated cascading leaves. Easy to grow from cuttings, English ivy absorbs formaldehyde found in some housecleaning products as well as carpeting and furniture.

English ivy

Plant care tip: English ivy is easy to grow in partial sunlight. It prefers moist soils and cooler room temperatures. Don’t let it dry out, though, or it will quickly shrivel up.


A trailing indoor plant with dark green, heart-shaped leaves, the philodendron makes a great accent in any room. It is not a good option if you have kids or pets, however, since its leaves can be toxic if eaten. Like English ivy, the heartleaf philodendron is particularly good at absorbing formaldehyde.

Heartleaf philodendron

Plant care tips: Heartleaf philodendron can live for years with only moderate watering. It prefers indirect light and will thrive in almost any room temperature. Let the soil dry out between waterings.

PEACE LILY (Spathiphyllum)

This beautiful arching plant with tall white blooms topped NASA’s list for removing formaldehyde, benzene and trichloroethylene and even ammonia.

Peace lily

Plant care tip: The peace lily is easy to grow, and will withstand even neglect (one person I know didn’t water his all winter and it survived.) That being said, the peace lily prefers low light and moist soil. Be careful not to overwater, though, or the leaves will lose their color and droop.


Tall growing, with purplish-red leaves and curving stalks, the red-edged dracaena can reach heights of 15 feet or more. The species has 40 other varieties that vary in shape and form, including some with variegated leaves of white and cream. A word of caution to pet owners, however, the dracaena is toxic to cats and dogs. The dracaena is known to remove benzene, trichloroethylene, formaldehyde and xylene commonly emitted by lacquers, varnishes and gasoline.

Red-edged dracaena

Plant care tip: The dracaena thrives in filtered light in well-drained soil. It prefers humid, warm temperatures. If the temperature falls below 65 degrees, it will not grow.


This easy to grow houseplant can quickly grow to eight feet or more, making it a major addition to any décor. The dark green shiny leaves of the rubber plant are also effective at filtering out formaldehyde from household cleaning products and synthetic building materials.

Rubber plant

Plant care tip: Rubber plant prefers some sunlight, but will grow even in dimly lit areas. Allow the soil to dry out in between waterings and keep leaves clean by wiping them periodically with a wet paper towel.


Also known as ‘mother-in-law’s tongue’, this houseplant is one of the hardest to kill. With blade-like thick, variegated leaves that grow stiffly upright, it’s a tough species and one of the best for filtering out formaldehyde.

Snake plant

Plant care tip: Snake plant will grow in a wide variety of conditions and doesn’t need much to survive. Unlike most plants that absorb carbon dioxide during the day, the snake plant works on an opposite schedule, releasing oxygen into the air during the night, making it a great plant for the bedroom.

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Seasonal Eating: The Best ‘Warming’ Foods To Try This Winter

cover garlic

Winter has its challenges if, like me, you’re looking for fresh produce. And that makes it hard to resist all those imported fruits and vegetables. Still, if we want to be in sync with our environment, eating foods that are in season has only upsides for the body. That’s why I look to Mother Nature, who provides for cold weather by producing some of the best ‘warming’ foods around.

What are warming foods?

Thousands of years ago, Chinese medicine practitioners took a look at the way food affects a person’s energy and overall health and developed a classification system. They grouped foods according to yin and yang, or their ability to cool or heat the body. Today’s practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine still believe that the combination of foods that a person eats needs to be in equilibrium in order to achieve a balanced and healthy body.

This means there needs to be a balance of yin and yang.

yin and yang

The combination of foods a person eats needs to be in equilibrium

According to traditional Chinese medicine, ‘warming’ foods raise the yang of the body by helping to increase energy levels, improve circulation and chase away cold. Contrarily, ‘cooling’ foods raise the yin of the body by helping it eliminate toxins, reduce heat and cool the blood. There are also foods that are classified as neutral.

It may come as no surprise that excesses in one food group can lead to deficiencies in another. Chinese medicine keeps a keen eye on what a person eats so as to keep the body’s internal climate in balance. And interestingly, nature keeps an eye on things, too, ensuring a balance on Earth by producing different foods in different seasons.


Nature produces different foods in different seasons for a reason

The case for seasonal eating

Before there was long distance (refrigerated) transportation, the seasons defined what we ate. I can still remember when stores sold green grapes in the summer and switched to red grapes in the fall. I’m as guilty as the next person, buying blueberries all year long out of season. But, I pay for it in mealy texture, smaller size and overall lack of flavor.

Seasonal eating is all about achieving equilibrium in the body. And with each season, nature makes new food groups available. Many of the foods that grow in the fall and winter, like root vegetables, carrots, potatoes, garlic and onions, exhibit ‘warming’ qualities. These can help a body brave the chill.


Garlic exhibits ‘warming’ qualities

Another way to look at warming foods is that they take longer to grow. Animal food falls in this category. And eggs and nuts are considered warming foods, too.eggsHere is a list of foods that, according to traditional Chinese medicine, are generally considered ‘warming.’

warming foods 2


The theory goes that by incorporating more foods with higher thermal levels into the diet, a body will find it easier to stay warm. And depending on where you live, many of the above-mentioned foods come into season in fall or early winter.leekLeeks, onions, mustard greens, chives, pumpkin and squash ripen in early fall and can persist well into winter. Pepper, garlic, fennel, and coffee (harvested in October and December in Latin America) also fall in this seasonal category. Chestnuts and pistachios are harvested in the early fall and walnuts come into maturity September through early November.

Of course the fruits cited above don’t necessarily fit with seasonal eating in much of the world. But, if you live in the tropics, they do.

How do I know if I’m yang-deficient?

People like me who are often cold are always searching for ways to bring the body back in balance. Common manifestations of insufficient yang include cold hands, feet, or body. Chinese medicine says diarrhea, stomach pain, bloating, fluid retention, sore joints and general lack of energy are also signs of too little yang. By incorporating more warming foods into the diet, my local practitioner says I’ll be less cold as my body swings back into equilibrium.


Seasonal foods are more nutritious

Aligning our eating patterns with the seasons has many benefits; first and foremost nutrition. Foods picked and eaten at their peak are naturally packed with more vitamins and minerals. Out-of-season foods that are shipped in from other parts of the world or grown locally in hothouses are harvested early and refrigerated (to survive transport). This robs them of the ability to ripen properly, and results in a decrease in nutrients as well as flavor.

fruits on truck

Seasonal eating not only puts variation in our diets, it’s great for mental well being. Is there anything more delicious than eating foods in season? Embracing the natural rhythm of things helps connect us with the calendar as we become part of the food growing process. And, it reintroduces an old concept in food shopping: anticipation.

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New Hybrids Promise To Rock Your Poinsettia World


New hybrids are changing the poinsettia world

Today, December 12, is National Poinsettia Day; a day set aside to honor the plant that has become the symbol of an American holiday tradition. And while not everyone’s a fan, it’s hard not to revel in the species’ growing popularity. Poinsettias have come a long way since they were first introduced to the United States by Joel Roberts Poinsett. In his day, they were celebrated for their brilliant red color. These days, they come in every shade of white, pink, orange and even blue. Continue reading

Mistletoe: The Poisonous Plant We Love To Hang At Christmas

European or Common mistletoe, Viscum album

This season many of us will be hanging mistletoe as part of a long-standing tradition. And while kissing under its evergreen branches is a holiday ritual, the plant doesn’t necessarily have our best interests in mind. Why?  Because mistletoe contains a Christmas cocktail of toxins that can be harmful to human and pet health. Best to keep it out of reach if it’s going to be part of your seasonal decorations. Continue reading

Daffodil Dreaming: Top Varieties To Plant Before Winter

Yesterday I planted the last of my daffodils for the season. As I dropped the bulbs into their egg-shaped holes, I could already envision their bright yellow cups emerging like trumpets come spring. Which got me thinking: what is it about daffodils that make us so happy? Is it their bright color, incredible variety or sheer beauty in numbers? I set out to find the answer. Continue reading

Nature’s Flu Remedy: Antiviral Anti-inflammatory Lemon

Now that flu season has begun, most of us are looking for ways to boost immunity and increase our chances of staying well. For some, this means getting the flu shot, for others it means restocking their arsenal of home remedies, for many it means a combination of both. Among the natural remedies, there seems to be no end to what’s available. But, sometimes it doesn’t take more than opening your refrigerator to uncover one of the best flu fighters of all: the humble lemon. Continue reading