We love the local food movement. We love local cheeses, veggies and fruits — and the closer to our homes they were grown, the better they taste.
But let’s be reasonable: We’ve got ocean liners and cargo jets crisscrossing our planet in fleets, skipping over lines of latitude eight per hour and bridging the continents, and we’d might as well see what exotic goods these gas-guzzlers are packing in their baggage holds. Ethnic produce markets – especially those of Asian ownership or clientele – are great places to find a wide and splendid variety of exotic fruits.
You may encounter the so-beautiful-it-hurts-to-cut-it-up dragon fruit; the waxy-skinned, sweet-sour star fruit; the magnificent, pearly fleshed white sapote; the queenly mangosteen; the unearthly citrus fruit shaped like a jester’s hat and often called “goblin fingers”; and so many more wild and wonderful treasures. We recently made an Asian market fruit-hunting foray, and though we found some sorry absences – no white sapotes or mangosteens, for instance – we still arranged a colorful tasting lineup of rare or strange fruits, each sweet, big, fragrant, or beautiful enough to awe – and all grown deliciously far away.
Prickly pear: Favored for its cool and succulent flesh, this Mexican cactus fruit is riddled with thousands of microscopic spines that can cripple the hand that grabs it. By tossing the fruits about in blankets and even using fire to sear away these nasty fibers, handling the pears becomes possible, and most that are sold in markets are harmless. We tasted two varieties: green and purple. We sliced them in two and spooned out the fruit. While some of us found the BB-like seeds a bother, the sweet flesh – especially in the bright and berry-like purple variety – won our favor.
Mamey sapote: An oddity rarely seen, we snatched up this ripe-when-soft Central American tree fruit at first sight. It’s about the size of a coconut with brown skin as rough as sandpaper – and what a surprise inside: elegant, creamy pink flesh that feels and tastes like pumpkin pie.
Longan: This small Asian native is also called “dragon’s eye” for its eyeball shape and size and translucent, juicy flesh – cool and refreshing in the mouth, sweet, and with a musky spice that sets it apart from the lychee.
Rambutan: Another Asian relative of the lychee, this fruit is a real beauty. Buried with feathery, red fronds, inside it is much like the longan, only chewier and tarter.
Yellow guava: Tastes like beer. Seriously. The hallowed India Pale Ales of the American West are made with hops whose aromas are very often likened to passion fruit, grapefruit and guava – and a bite of this delicate golf ball-sized New World native is just a bit like having a pint of fresh IPA.
Green guava: Aromatic and perfumey like its smaller counterpart, this fruit was perhaps the least interesting that we ate – rather like a hard pear. Its seeds, too, were a nuisance, and we wondered why fruit breeders hadn’t done away with them long ago.
Jackfruit: A must-bring to your next potluck party, this Southeast Asian native is the largest tree fruit in the world and can attain weights of nearly 100 pounds. Butchering it is an adventure in itself, but before you begin hacking at the rind, beware: The jackfruit contains a nasty latex that seeps from its rind and core and which can remain on your skin for days. The trick is to grease your hands and cutlery with olive oil before attacking. Inside, you’ll find the edible yellow “arils” encased in a feathery material called “rag,” which can be set aside and cooked in oil for a savory snack. (It’s delicious.) A bit rubbery, the arils are sweet and fragrant, with an essence of pineapple and bubblegum.
Cherimoya: The favorite fruit in our lineup, the cherimoya was described by one taster as “the quintessential fruit that these other fruits want to be.” Sliced in two, the white flesh oozed with juice. It smelled alluringly tropical and was luscious, juicy and fragrant with just a bite of zesty acid.
Durian: We saved the so-called “king of fruits” for last – but what a bummer! Its white legendary flesh, supposed to be aromatic and custard-like, was bad – acidic and grubby and rubbery. Experienced durian fans know that this happens from time to time: Due to premature harvesting or poor handling, a bad durian winds up on the table. It’s a heartbreaking thing – and one of the best ways to insure that your durian isn’t a dud is to buy two. Hell, they’re coming in by the boatload, anyway.