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A Guide to Exotic Fruits For Chefs

Aug 17, 2007
We will explore the fruit varieties of the world which are far removed from the usual fare. For the bold, the creative, or the daring gourmand...

Hautbois - Or "musk strawberry" to we common folk. Musk strawberries grow wild in forests in and around Central Europe, Scandinavia, and Russia. The gourmet community has held it in esteem for decades for its intense aroma and flavor which is comparable to a mixture of regular strawberry, raspberry and pineapple. Since it's a variety of the strawberries you'd normally find, it has about the same appearance and spring-season you'd expect for strawberries.

Jaboticaba - This is just the Brazilian version of grapes. The fruit has a purple-to-black skin and a sweet white meat. The main novelty is the plant - somehow, these things grow on a tree whose blossoms spring directly from the trunk, and the fruit bears directly at the top of the trunk where the branches form. Picture a regular tree wearing a beard made of grapes. Because they ferment rapidly, they are used for jams, jellies, liqueurs, and very strong wines.

Lychee - The Lychee is a tropical fruit native to southern China, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It has been successfully cultivated in Hawaii and Florida in the United States. The fruit is about cherry-sized and resembles a wrinkled grape with a fiery red color, white meat, and a brown nut-like seed. Its taste is described as sweet and fragrant, and some varieties have a honey-like flavor. The season is late-summer.

Mangosteen - This native fruit of southeast Asia has a remarkable appearance. The size is about that of a navel orange, the color is that of an eggplant reddish-purple, the green-to-red leaf cap looks like a propeller. Slice it open and discover a purple inside rind and fruit meat of a pure white color sectioned into lobes like an orange. The flavor, too, is a surprise, being sweet, creamy, and citrus-like with some peach flavor. It is very fragrant, smelling almost like a perfume. They are in season from April to September. As these have been called "the queen of fruits" for their elegant nature, you can expect them to be a much-appreciated treat.

Paw Paw - Another botanical curiosity. Paw Paws (or Papaws, or pawpaws, or papas, or any of its other 500 names) are native to the eastern North American region but there have been successful attempts to grow them in California. It is the largest edible native fruit of the United States.

Yet they are rare because of their picky growth requirements - for one thing, they have to be fertilized by blow-flies. The fruit has a close resemblance to the mango in appearance, but tastes more like a cross between the banana and the mango. Even with all that, it actually classifies as a berry! The ripe fruit has a pronounced perfume fragrance. The season is mid-August to October.

Physalis - The Physalis is native to warm subtropical temperate climates throughout the world. It bears a small orange fruit similar in size, shape and structure to a small tomato, with a papery husk partly enclosing it. The fruit is eaten raw, either fresh or dried like figs, and can also be used in salads, desserts, jams, jellies, and as a flavoring. And the flavor? Described as tomato with a hint of... pineapple.

Pomelo - Also called the "Chinese grapefruit", it's native to southeast Asia and even grows wild in Fiji, Tonga, and Hawaii. It is, in fact, an ancestor of the grapefruit, which was formed from crossing between the pomelo and the orange to give us the modern grapefruit varieties we know today.

Subtract the orange from a grapefruit and you're left with the pomelo: tending to a melon-green skin which is thicker, and having a sweet, mellow taste unlike the more acidic grapefruit, but keeping it's meat colors which range from pale yellow to deep red. By the way, the tangelo is a hybrid between the pomelo and the tangerine, and the fruit known in Israel as "sweetie" is a cross-back of the grapefruit and the pomelo. With all this citrus cross-breeding going on to give us so many of the fruits we all know and adore, isn't it about time we recognized the original source of them?

Rambutan - Rambutans are given as native to southeast Asia and South America, but no one really knows. It is easily cultivated and popular throughout the Southern Hemisphere. It is in season twice per year, once in the late fall and a shorter season in spring. A rambutan looks a little like a cross between a raspberry and a spiny urchin. The fruit is oval and cherry-sized, usually red in color although orange and yellow color is sometimes seen, and covered in hairy, pliable spikes. The meat ranges from white to pale pink, and has a mild, sweet, slightly-acidic flavor in the character of a berry.

Starfruit - "Starfruit" is the common name for the fruit of the Carambola tree, and it rivals durians and mangosteens for the category of "fruit you'd be most likely to guess comes from another planet". It's shape makes it distinctive - it really does grow in angled lobes so that a sliced cross-section looks just like a five-point star. It's season is July through February. The fruit is about the size of an apple, and usually is yellow or green in color. They are crunchy like an apple, and taste vaguely pear-like with a hint of grape. Of all the exotic fruits in this list, starfruits are starting to become the most mainstream. You might still have some hold-outs at your table because of the alien appearance, but just urge them to try it - they'll like it!

Tamarillo - This is a South American cousin to the tomato, native to South America and in season about the same time as tomatoes. It is smaller than a tomato, shaped like an American "football", usually red to yellow in color. It's flavor is much more acidic than a tomato, with a tangy zing like an apricot. You'll want to remove the outer peel, however, which is very bitter to taste. Seldom eaten straight, these are better to cook with, where they can be used in everything from sauces to stews. In South America, they are sliced in half, sprinkled with sugar, and eaten for a refreshing breakfast.
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