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Tropical fruits and vegetable have always fascinated Europeans when they first saw them in the Americas and brought to Spain or Italy for further study. Some have been successfully grown, and proliferated. Others succumbed to the harsh winters even in the northern Mediterranean shores famous for their mild winter seasons.
Today, tropical fruits and vegetables are widely available in many large cities across the continent; thanks to rapid air cargo and efficient distribution systems. Restaurateurs try to attract the affluent jet set by featuring rare and unusual foodstuffs.
Most tropical fruits and vegetables tend to be delicate, therefore taste best when picked ripe and consumed shortly thereafter. Tropical fruits available in North America are by and large picked “green” and force-ripened in transit, and/or in specially designed warehouses. Beside their interesting look, their taste and texture represent only a shadow of their true taste.
Akee, the “gratis food” of Jamaica, tastes akin to scrambled eggs, and is almost always served with salted cod. Canned akee is available in West Indian grocery stores in large North American cities. The fruit is too perishable for distribution in distant markets.
Jack fruit has a pear shape with a dark green skin and can weigh up to 30 kg. It has a very perfumey smell and tastes delicious raw or cooked. Ripe jack fruit has a creamy yellow flesh. Unripe fruit can be used in cooking.
Sapodilla, a Central American fruit, has a rough brown skin and its grainy flesh is sweet. Fully ripe sapodilla tastes delicious and has a brownish pulp.
Papaya contains papain, often used as a tenderising agent for meat or fish. Ripe papaya is sweet and succulent with an orange-yellow flesh. Size varies from 500 grams to several kilograms.
Rambutan, a native plant to Malaysia and relative to lychee, is a strikingly beautiful fruit the size of an apricot. It does not travel well and is mostly used where it grows. Southeast Asian countries are the prime producers and consumers of this delightful, mild and refreshing fruit.
Citron, a highly fragrant citrus fruit, originating in the Far East, but is today grown in Mediterranean countries. Citron resembles an oblong lemon with a thick, coruscated rind and a pleasantly acid pulp. Chefs prefer it for its mild and appealing acidity, and confectioners candy the highly fragrant peel.
Custard apple, a green and round fruit, has a soft, creamy texture with a pulp reminiscent of custard.
Mangosteen is a roundish and brown purple fruit with a shiny skin. It is a favourite of southeastern Asians where it grows. The soft, white, juicy, segmented flesh of mangosteen has a delightful sweet and sour taste. It is only available in season around March and must be consumed fresh.
Passion fruit, a highly perfumey berry with a delicate flavour, is frequently imported from New Zealand and available in gourmet stores. The fruit consists of innumerable seeds and a jelly like pulp with a distinctly sour but pleasing taste.
Fig, an ambrosial and sweet fruit, is indigenous to Asia Minor and India. There are two varieties: green and dark purple. Figs may be onion shaped with a tapered upper part, or flat and round. Fully ripe figs possess a unique flavour and texture. Italian chefs like to serve them with prosciutto.
In the Middle East, people eat them fresh in season, and dried in winter, or use in compotes or pastries. Fig jam is considered to be a delicacy.
California produces figs but their taste fails to even remotely resemble those from southern Italy, Greece and Turkey.
Durian is a delicious but malodorous tropical, south Asian Anjou pear-shapes fruit with and uneven skin, and yellow-black colour. It can be large and must be eaten ripe. It does not store well.
Pomegranate is a popular fruit in Asia with ruby-red, innumerable translucent kernels each of which has a bitter pit. Eating pomegranate is a time-consuming proposition and requires skill. Pomegranate syrup is often used in Middle-Eastern specialties for its refer4eshing sweet and sour taste. Its pulp can be used for a refreshing drink. In season, pomegranates are widely available.
Quince is a large, oblong, yellow-green, tannic and hard-fleshed fruit. It originates in Iran and has been used as a digestive for millennia. Quince jam and jelly have millions of Middle Eastern and west European aficionados. Quince compote an delightful dessert in many Mediterranean countries. It can also be stewed with lamb. Quince is a very versatile fruit available in season (October to December. California is a major supplier to North American markets.
Lychee is a succulent, refreshing walnut-sized round pinkish fruit native to south China and favourite of Cantonese. Now it is also grown in Florida for North American distribution. Chinese grown lychee possesses a more appealing and refreshing luscious faintly acid flavour.
Soursop, a close relative of the custard apple, is a heart shaped fruit covered with flesh spies, used mostly to make soft drinks and sherbets. (mountain soursop)
Mango is considered the king of tropical fruits, kidney shaped or oval long and round, the mango varies in colour from green to gold or green-red. When ripe, mango has an excellent refreshing taste and a nutty soft texture. Native to India mango is now widely grown in Central American and Caribbean countries. Indian mango (Alfonso) has a stringy flesh but more concentrated and appealing flavour than fleshy Mexican fruit. In the Caribbean green mango is pickled and served as a condiment to enhance the taste of a number of special dishes.
Canned mango pulp from India is widely available and used in ice-cream production.
Cherimoya, native to central and South America, has a texture and taste resembling creamy banana and pineapple ice cream.
Loquat, mostly cultivated in Japan, come Mediterranean countries, and now in California, originated in China.
The size and colour of an apricot, loquat has a shiny thick skin and three large dark brown seeds. When ripe the flesh has a sweet-sour refreshing flavour and appealing texture.
Available only in season and in Italian grocery stores
Borassus palm grows in southern India, Sri Lanka and Burma. It is mostly used to produce sugar and the sap for toddy. (A fermented mildly alcoholic beverage which is also distilled to produce arrack in Sri Lanka. Arrack is not to be confused with Middle Eastern Arak).
Plantains belong to the banana family, but must be cooked (deep fried, baked or boiled) prior to consumption to convert starches to sugar. Plantain is often serves for breakfast in the Caribbean; it can be puréed or sliced thinly and deep fried for chips.
Carambola or star fruit is a yellow or bright green, shiny skinned star shaped elongated Caribbean fruit with pleasantly acid taste and crunchy texture.
Kiwi fruit, a native of southern China, is hardly exotic today, thanks to its widespread cultivation in New Zealand, Israel, Italy, Chile, Spain, France and California. The flesh is green with shiny black ”seeds” and succulent soft flesh. New Zealand grown kiwi tastes much better and possesses a more appealing texture than any other, but costs more due to airfreight transportation.
Kiwi is used as a decoration in dessert presentations used in tortes, in fruit salads, and enjoyed on its own.
Tropical fruit availability is much improved today than only two decades ago. Most of the fruits described above are available in major North American cities and European capitals and/or financial centres; however, practically all taste much better when picked fully ripe and consumed within a day or two.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu
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