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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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.