Four exotic fruits: in which I eat them so you don’t have to

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The other day I went to the grocery store looking for fruit with a pretty standard shopping list. On it were such stalwarts as apples, bananas, perhaps a basket of berries or so.

But that is not what I walked out with: not at all. Instead, my eye was drawn to a particular shelf where some odd shapes sat next to each other. There was the horned one. The spiny one. The dried up purple shell caving in to its hollow center. The one that looked painfully familiar, and yet I couldn’t place (it turned out to be a nightshade).

Like eccentric back-benchers, these oddities sat side-by-side casting baleful glances at the mainstream fruit around them. Well, I never could resist the call of the eccentric back-bencher; and there is no reason to start now.

The apples and bananas had to wait for another day. Here is what I came home with: a shopping bag filled with horned melon, passion fruit, pepino melon, and rambutan. We happened to have a friend over, so we spent a pleasant afternoon cutting open these oddities and chronicling the experience.

Rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum)

At first, one is not sure if one is safe approaching a rambutan — it looks like a ruby-toned porcupine with pointy quills. But when you pick it up, you find it fits neatly inside your palm, as big as a ping-pong ball. The spines feel like plastic bristles that fold under pressure.

So far so good. But how is one expected to eat it? The peel offers no clues. It turns out that it takes a rather sharp paring knife to poke a hole in it and keep going. The skin is leathery and tough. You jab with the knife and peel off chunks, revealing smooth, wet, translucent white flesh .

Interestingly, in biological terms, the white flesh is not a fruit part at all, but rather, a thickened seed coat, known as aril. Some plants grow edible and sweet arils, for the same reason that others grow fleshy fruit — to tempt eaters on legs to eat them and thus spread them. Another example of such an aril-based fruit is the pomegranate, where each little seed grows red juicy pockets around it.

The single, oval seed is rather large with a papery exterior. In fact, a note for the squeamish — the taste of the translucent flesh always comes with a hint or two of the papery seed coverings. I don’t mind that at all, but some might.

Rambutan and the closely related lychee are both from the same family as the maple, of the flavorful sap. If I scrunch up my forehead enough I can imagine a maple-like sharpness to the taste of the flesh. It is sweet, resilient, and cool. When overripe, the peel becomes almost as hard as rock, while the pulp develops faintly pineapple notes. Go eat it: you have my blessings. The Odd Pantry rating:FourApple

Horned melon or kiwano (Cucumis metuliferus)

Don’t let those protuberances that make it look like a stegosaurus egg fool you — the horned melon is nothing but a cuddly cucumber inside. With a difference.

It looks rather alike, as you can see from the picture. But the flesh is lime green instead of pale, and much pulpier, so that it needs to be scooped out with a spoon. The seeds that sit inside each little polyp are chewier. With each bite, one notices the chewiness of the seeds, that remains in your mouth once the pulp is eaten. They taste a bit like very thin and small cantaloupe seeds. Some people, I hear, attempt to spit the seeds out, but here’s what I say: why bother?

Mildly sweet with a hint of tartness, the taste is still somehow very close to the watery freshness of cucumber. Unlike a cucumber though this is not a possible salad ingredient at all. Really there seems to be no better way to eat it than with a spoon directly off the cut halves.

So is it actually related to the cucumbers and the cantaloupes? Very closely — about as close as a raspberry to a blackberry (the same genus). Though native to sub-Saharan Africa, it is now grown all over the place from California to Australia. My feeling though, about why it hasn’t caught on, is that it is hard to place it in a food group. Neither a vegetable, nor a hearty fruit that could work as dessert, nor even in a fruit salad — the kiwano is a fruit without a convenient slot to fit into. Nothing that a bit of directed breeding couldn’t fix! The Odd Pantry rating: ThreeApple

Pepino melon (Solanum muricatum)

Sigh. One wants to be polite (and I always, always do) but I don’t see what the point of the pepino is. Perhaps a reader will come along and enlighten me.

It has the shape of a golden eggplant with purple streaks. This is not surprising since the pepino melon is neither a pepino (cucumber) nor a melon — but rather closely related to eggplant and other nightshades. Now this family is known for producing toxins, such as nicotine and capsacain (chili heat), but is also known for its tasty edibles. Eggplants have a unique taste, as do tomatoes and the swollen stems known as potatoes.

But the pepino, alas, is bland. Well, let’s start at the beginning. Cutting it open is easy, because the peel is very thin and presents no barriers. The specimen I got had no seeds. Cut into quarter wedges, as you can see, the flesh was easy to get to.

That’s the good part. There is barely a smell at all, though our friend detected faint notes of nicotine (he used to be a smoker). If you could imagine a barely-sweet cantaloupe with most aromas removed, then enhance that with the blandness of lettuce — that is basically what the pepino tasted like. Perhaps cooking it like a vegetable might lead to a better experience.

One hates to do this, like I said, but I won’t be buying this again. The Odd Pantry rating: TwoApple

Passion fruit (Passiflora edulis)

I have never eaten anything quite like a passion fruit. I didn’t know what to expect from just seeing the shell, which feels like a hard, textured globe with a tendency to collapse inward as it ripens. ‘The oysters of the fruit world’, our friend called it, and I could not understand what he meant at all.

When we cut it open I understood right away. Passion fruit pulp is loosely attached to the shell, much like an oyster is attached to it’s, and lies in a gelatinous mass. Each little black seed is surrounded by pulpy aril (that word again), giving the entire pulp the appearance of a different aquatic object — frog spawn.

The taste is intense: sour, a little sweet, tropical. The seeds are like grit in your teeth, but you can crunch through them. A couple scoops with the spoon and the entire fruit is eaten. This is not the kind of fruit one goes to for calories, but rather, the experience.

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Passionflower

It isn’t surprising that passionfruit is such a unique eating experience, because the flower it springs from — the passion flower — is rather unique too. Most flowers have a row of green sepals beneath the petals; the passion flower alternates a sepal and a petal in a single whorl of ten. Plus, it has a set of purple rays that emanate from the center, called the corona, that look much like the rays of cartoon suns. When early Christian missionaries discovered this plant, they thought its unusual appearance made a perfect teaching aid for the crucifixion of Christ, with each part representing a different aspect of the story. This, by the way, is what the ‘passion’ in the name refers to — the Passion of Christ. It is not a synonym for lust or ardor.

Heavy stuff. In any case, this is a fruit that is worth trying for the experience if nothing else. The Odd Pantry rating: FiveApple

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‘Tis the season for Cranberry Pickle

Cranberry pickle

Cranberry pickle

‘Tis the season for cranberries at all our local markets. ‘Tis also the season for South Asian Indian expats to feel like complete non-entities, because during Thanksgiving all references to ‘Indians’ in America means native Americans. Pilgrims and Indians, Indian corn pudding, Indian harvest feast, and so on.

You guys know that Columbus didn’t really find us, right? While he was knocking around off the coast of America, letters of introduction to Indian emperors in his pocket, we were about to be overrun by the Mughals. Mr. Columbus was nowhere near. Luckily we fared better with the Mughals than the ‘other’ Indians did with Columbus and his descendants.

In any case, ’tis also the season to not be a curmudgeon, and instead, be thankful; and indeed I am thankful for all the bounty of the American continent. Where would we, the Desi Indians be, without the potato, the tomato, the chili…all first harvested here. Can you imagine Indian cuisine without any of those? And corn — without corn, no makki di roti, sarson da saag? Thank you for opening the floodgates to this bounty, Mr. Columbus. For the food. For the feasts. And more importantly, for not finding us.

Cranberries cut in half

Cranberries cut in half

Cranberries

Now here is an American crop that us Indians should take up, given our fondness for sour foods. The European settlers of America learned about cranberries from the tribes that lived around New England. They were used in a number of ways. As fruit; beaten into cakes with meat; the leaves were used for tea; as a natural dye; as a laxative or for treating injuries and fever. However, cranberries really took off among the Europeans only when cheap sweeteners became available, when the sourness of cranberries could be turned into the sweet-tartness of cranberry sauce and be used as a condiment with meat.

Now I love cranberry sauce, and I am about to make some with wine today. But, I think it is a pity that this is the only way they get eaten. Someday perhaps I will try grinding the berries with some meat, the way the native Americans did. And, cranberry leaf tea, anyone?

Cranberry pickle

The sourness of cranberries means that it comes with its own natural preservative, so putting it in a pickle is a no-brainer. I like the sourness so much that I did not add any sugar. I made this pickle in the classic (‘real’) Indian style, with mustard oil. First, cut them in half and mix in salt and leave in a flat layer to dehydrate and ‘cook’. Next, put in a jar with other spices and cover with oil.

Cranberries with salt and red chili

Cranberries with salt and red chili

Tossed with spices

Tossed with spices

After a week, dehydrated

After a week, dehydrated

Add cracked fenugreek seeds

Add cracked fenugreek seeds

In a jar

In a jar

Cranberry pickle

Ingredients:
  • Half a pound of fresh cranberries
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon (or to taste) red chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon fenugreek seeds
  • 1 cup or more mustard oil
Method:

Make sure the cranberries are completely dry and cut each in half through the equator. Toss them with the salt and chili powder. Lay them out in a glass or other non-reactive tray in a flattish layer, and cover with cheesecloth. If you get sun part of the day, leave them out in the sun. Each day or two, give them a toss with a clean spoon. Over the days the salt will draw out the moisture and the sun and air will dry it. After three to seven days, they will look dehydrated and shriveled as in the picture above.

Break the fenugreek seeds in a mortar and pestle or in a clean coffee grinder. Mix them in with the cranberries. Empty out the cranberries into a clean non-reactive jar. Pour raw mustard oil over them, shaking once in a while in order to remove bubbles, until the oil comes up to the top. Cover and enjoy.

You do not need to refrigerate this. As for how long it will last, well, a few weeks certainly, but if they go bad I will update this post.


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A seedy family full of custard

Today in Better-Know-A-Fruit…I will show you some family pictures! This is a family that has origins in Peru and Ecuador, but has pretty much settled all over the world (like a lot of us nowadays), so no matter where you live, you might be familiar with at least one of its members. I have also included my rather dramatic new attempt at an Internet quiz.

Here is the cherimoya (Annona cherimola). This one is as big as a baby’s head. Found all across Latin America, the flesh is studded with hard black seeds that one must spit out; and white flesh so delicious that the seeds can’t stop you from getting at it. They may try, but they won’t succeed.

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Here is the custard-apple, sugar-apple or Seetaphal (Annona squamosa), found all over Asia. When it is ripe enough one applies very gentle pressure and splits the fruit apart. The off-white custard is studded with seeds. As with the cherimoya, one scoops the flesh up with a spoon as though you are eating ice-cream, and spits out the seeds.

Seetaphal or custard-apple

Seetaphal or custard-apple

Factoid: Seetaphal does not mean ‘Seeta’s fruit’ as the name suggests — Seeta being the heroine from the Hindu epic the Ramayan — instead, the name comes from the Sanskrit root meaning ‘cool fruit’ because of its temperate growing needs. Interestingly, the word ‘cherimoya’ comes from a Quechua word that also means ‘cool seeds’.

The Seetaphal was introduced in India by the Spanish in the seventeenth century. Its fortunate name that made it sound like it hung around Indian forests way back in the days of the Ramayan has lent it a very homey cachet. So when relatives of the Seetaphal were found, of course more characters from the Ramayan were used to name them.

The next fruit in that family they named Ramphal (Annona reticulata). This is the larger, redder and I guess more masculine-looking? version of the Seetaphal. Also known as the wild one of the pair, it is not as tasty as the Seetaphal. Some call it the bullock’s heart, you can see why.

Ramphal

Ramphal

Given that there is a Seetaphal and a Ramphal, could the Lakshmanphal be far behind? This is the graviola or soursop (Annona muricata), known as Lakshmanphal in India. This is now grown throughout the tropics. The flesh is slimy and white just like its cousins, but strangely sour. There have been grand claims made about its ability to cure cancer and conspiracy theories thrown around about corporations that are keeping the news of this medical miracle from us. Status of its cancer-killing claims: undetermined. So whether it cures cancer is unknown, but there are reports that too much of this might actually cause Parkinson’s.

Lakshmanphal / soursop

Lakshmanphal / soursop

Next is the delightfully named paw-paw (Asimina triloba). Not only is this actually one of those rare fruits that are native to the United States, it is actually the largest edible fruit native to the United States. Chew on that for a bit…but do spit out the seeds. Of course the yellowish, custardy flesh of the paw-paw comes studded with seeds also. This fruit does not ripen off the branch and does not keep well; hence, it is not often found on grocery shelves and must be foraged for. You know who else foraged the paw-paw? Lewis and Clark, that’s who.

Paw-paw

Paw-paw

An even more delightfully named ylang-ylang — but we only care about the flower this time. This flower is so fragrant that it has found its way into the rather well-known Chanel No. 5.

That was the Annona family, now for a slightly more distant cousin. Australians may be familiar with this one. The Bolwarra or the native guava (Eupomatia laurina) is another one of those seed-studded, pulpy, custardy fruits that the flesh must be scooped out of. This is often used in jams, jellies and beverages. I have never tried it myself, so, much as it would delight me, I cannot report first-hand on what it tastes like raw.

Like all families these fruits share certain traits. The custardy flesh tends to have floral notes like that of roses. As soft as banana or avocado flesh, it is faintly gritty. They would not work well in fruit salads but would be great in ice-cream. They must be eaten when fully ripe, but when overripe they start to ferment and taste slightly alcoholic. These fruits tend to have a cone-like or bulb-like appearance, and to me look sort of like a clenched fist atop a super-thin wrist.

Botanically, these fruits are interesting too. They tend to have fragrant flowers (remember the ylang-ylang?) because they need to attract beetles by their scent, in order to get their…ahem…male parts into their female parts. Pollination, for the squeamish. The other champion pollinators of the insect kingdom — the bees — these plants have no use for. They were invented before the bees, do not produce nectar for them, their flowers don’t accommodate them, and are basically invisible to them.

Did any of you wonder why these bloody fruits absolutely must be studded everywhere with seeds? Couldn’t they at least try to be convenient like the other fruits and cluster the seeds in the middle? No — because they aren’t a single fruit at all. Millions of years ago separate fruit in these plants got fused together into one — so they are all aggregate fruits.

Now for the quiz! Excitement! Big font! Flashy gifs! Here is a relative of this seedy family that should be a rather familiar sight to most North Americans. This one is not edible though unless you are a bird. Can you guess what it is?

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Click on this link to find out! If you guessed right award yourself 14 Odd Pantry points. That’s right, 14! Aren’t I generous! You can redeem them at any time by writing to: The Editor, The Odd Pantry, the Internet.

Avocado Relish

There are some Westerners who go to India and fall in love with being Indian. They make all sorts of claims about their souls being Indian, or having been Indian in some previous life time; and, if you think about it, there couldn’t be a better proof of feeling Indian than throwing around claims about previous life times. Some start to wear rudraksha beads and saffron robes. The more extreme among them might take on a Hindu name.

We have all met at least a couple such people; if not, visit your nearest ISKCON and you will. But today I will introduce you to one such friend of mine — the avocado.

This fruit with buttery green flesh is native to Mexico. To me, the taste of the avocado has always been reminiscent of the flesh of young coconut: the kind you stick a straw in first to drink up the water and then the coconut-wallah scrapes the flesh off from the inside and hands it to you, using the shell as a bowl.

But stick it in a saffron robe and you would think this fruit was born and raised in India. It takes well to a number of Indian preparations. Mix it with yogurt to make a raita. Stick in a paratha. Spice it up to make chutneys. As I experiment I will be blogging about various Indian treatments for the avocado. But today, I will make that quintessential fresh accompaniment to rich and heavily spiced food — the kachumber.

Kachumbers are little salads or relishes that emphasize freshness and coolness. A bite of this is supposed to freshen your mouth during the meal. It usually consists some combination of onion, tomato, cucumber with lime juice. Try it with avocado, as below; it brings the taste of kachumber up to lusciousness.

This makes enough as a dinner side for two.

Avocado Kachumber

Ingredients:

  • Half an avocado, large, diced
  • Quarter cup finely diced red onion
  • Quarter cup finely diced tomato
  • One third cup finely diced cucumber
  • 1 green chili, serrano or jalapeno, finely diced
  • 1-2 teaspoon minced cilantro
  • Juice of one lime or lemon
  • Half a teaspoon salt

Method:

Couldn’t be simpler. Mix it all up! We had this as a side to fish and rice.

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Post script: Although I first tasted the avocado only after I came to California, where it grows easily even in home gardens, it turns out that avocado grows in India as well, under the guise of butter fruit. It seems to be known mostly in the south, and is only available during August and September. It also has trouble hitting that right moment of ripening — sometimes the fruit rots before getting there. But if you see it, do purchase it!

Prickly in pink

I have by now spent an enormous number of years on this planet, more than I care to admit, and about half of that time has been in the United States. But there are still occasional things that pop up to surprise me.

My pink mottled egg

My pink mottled egg

This time it was a pink egg. A giant, pink, mottled egg that sat all by its lonesome in a farmer’s stall in a market. Visions of pretty pink birdlings hatching out of it floating before me, I purchased it. Who could resist?

The man at the stall was nice enough to tell me that this was a cactus fruit. Now cactus plants are a bit of a strange beast for me, in the sense that I can’t easily place them in the plant family. Is that big fleshy thing supposed to be a leaf or a stem? Do they fruit? Why does the fruit appear stuck to the blade of what appears to be a leaf?¹

Clearly there are many, many gaps in my knowledge. But thanks to Mr. Farmers Market, I have filled one small gap.

Prickly pear cactus in Texas, courtesy of PDPhoto.org

Prickly pear cactus in Texas, courtesy of PDPhoto.org

Nopales or ‘prickly pear’ is a type of cactus that is native to Mexico. It has giant green oblong pads covered in spines. The pads are chopped up and eaten as a vegetable (very often by me, in my burrito). These pads produce pink egg-shaped fruit. This prickly pear fruit is what I saw that morning at the market.

The way one eats it is — first, before all else, remove the spines. Now this was already done for me at the market, and if you are lucky this is how you will find the fruit sold. Next, peel off the outer thick peel, which comes off quite easily with a paring knife.

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Inside, you find flesh of a deep magenta, granular and with high water content. The texture resembles kiwi or watermelon. The flesh can be eaten raw. But it has small round seeds studded throughout the flesh. There is actually no way to avoid eating the seeds, which to me were a nice crunchy backdrop to the melony flesh. But I can see that it would bother the squeamish. The seeds do limit it use in things like fruit salads and pies.

How was it to taste? Very unobjectionable. It has a mild flavor and is not terribly sweet. Apparently it is a nutritional powerhouse with high amounts of vitamin C, magnesium and calcium. I do sense that there is some hype surrounding its magical restorative properties on the interwebs though.

Other than eating it as is, here are a couple things you can do with it.

Juice it in a blender, then strain out the seeds. I believe you will want to sweeten the juice and perhaps liven it up with some lime or lemon.

Another trick was suggested to me by Mr. Farmers Market: put some cubes in some clear filtered water; this will quickly take on the deep magenta of the fruit while the flavor is affected in a very mild way. A good way to make a base for fruit punch, or, perhaps drinkable ‘blood’ for Halloween.

My fake blood using prickly pear cubes

My fake blood using prickly pear cubes

¹I have since discovered that in a typical cactus, the leaves have been adapted into the spines, while the stems have adapted to form the green (photosynthetic) part — usually the succulent, squat structure that bears the spines. This is called the areoles. So in the nopales cactus, the vegetable part that one eats is the modified stem. Now it is no mystery that the egg-shaped fruit comes attached to what I believed to be the leaf blade: that is indeed, the stem, and the fruit grow from the stem in the usual way.

A case of two mistaken identities and some yumminess

When I first came to this country I saw this fruit:

Kiwi

Fruit No. 1

And I thought it was this fruit:

chickoo

Fruit No. 2

Ha! I was wrong. Fruit No. 2 is actually the chikoo, also known as sapodilla, also known as — bear with me while I blind you with science — Manilkara zapota. It is native to Central America but grows in great quantities in India. It looks like this inside:

chickooCut

and the flesh tastes like a dryish banana. To eat it, you peel off the thin brown skin and eat the brown flesh. Not bad to taste, but my mom made me eat them a lot and I still recoil from the poor chickoo for that reason. Don’t let me dissuade you from trying this excellent fruit, though; it will lower your cholesterol and blood sugar while being the cause of some yumminess. Do yourself a favor and buy some if you see them being sold anywhere, but I do have to warn you, the seeds look suspiciously like cockroaches.

OK. On we go.

The other day I saw this berry-like fruit being sold at farmer’s market:

kiwiberry6oz

Berry No. 1

I thought it was an unripe version of this berry. Naturally I bought it:

Berry No. 2

Berry No. 2

Ha! Wrong again. Berry No. 2 is Jamun. I know jamun well. It terrorized my tongue many a time with its tingly astringency. I never thought I would ever crave that nasty fellow, but I do now — now that I can’t have it. Jamun’s correct name is Syzigium cumini. It is native to India but has become a weed in various places such as Hawaii and Florida. Apparently it has also spread around Brazil, and Brazilian birds have developed a taste for it; I think it is because they don’t have much of a tongue to terrorize.

That leaves Fruit No. 1 and Berry No. 1. First clue — they are cousins.

Clearly Fruit No. 1 is no mystery. It is the kiwi. We usually identify it with Australia (perhaps the name has something to do with it?) but the kiwi is actually native to China. It is rather new to the wider world, having just become known around the twentieth century; since then it had a rash of branding and re-branding — a problem that only a modern fruit could have. It went from being known as yang tao, to Chinese Gooseberry, to Melonette, to Kiwi.

Kiwifruit has brown fuzzy skin and looks, yes, quite melony inside, like this:

KiwiCut

So what the heck is Berry No. 1? Inside, it looks like this:

kiwi berry

kiwi berry

That’s right! Berry No. 2 is a kiwi berry. Fruit No. 1 and Berry No. 1 are close cousins. Both belong to the Actinidia genus. This is closer than belonging to the same family; in other words, the kiwi and the kiwi berry are about as closely related as the lion and the tiger to each other (both belong to the Panthera genus).

Eating the kiwi berry was a satisfyingly schizophrenic experience. Tastes just like a kiwi inside, but there is no need to peel it, the skin is edible and remains so when it ripens fully. A wash-and-wear kiwi! Excellent.