Interest in unusual fruits, especially from tropical countries, has been steadily rising for the past few decades. Though not necessarily more nutritious than standbys like apples or peaches, these uncommon fruits can add variety and interest to your diet. The following guide sorts out some of the myriad possibilities available. Some of them are new to the marketplace and some have been around for a while, like mangoes and papaya. Browsing fruit stands in ethnic neighborhoods may help turn up some of the more unusual fruits.
This country’s strict laws governing the import of fresh fruits and vegetables has meant that some of the fruits grown in tropical countries may never make it to our shores, likely due to the legalities of pest control standards. However, many of these tropical fruits are available in dried and canned form. They’re worth seeking out and experimenting with. In addition, some tropical fruits are now being cultivated in Hawaii and are becoming more available on the mainland.
1. Ackee: A bright red fruit, ackee bursts open at the bottom when it’s ripe, exposing its pale yellow pulp and several large glossy black seeds. One of two fruits—the other being breadfruit—made famous by the infamous Captain William Bligh of the H.M.S. Bounty, ackee was imported to Jamaica from West Africa in the 1700s. It has since been adopted by the Jamaicans as their national fruit. The edible portion of ackee looks and tastes like scrambled eggs, and in Jamaica it is traditionally cooked with salt cod. It is difficult to find fresh ackee—it was illegal in this country until only a few years ago—but the canned form is available in Caribbean markets. One of the main reasons that most ackee is canned is that underripe or improperly processed ackee can cause vomiting (and in extreme cases, death). Canned ackee has a respectable amount of vitamin C (about 38 percent of the RDA), plus dietary fiber and some folate.
2. Atemoya: This delicious dessert fruit is the result of a cross between a cherimoya and a sweetsop, or sugar apple. From the outside, an atemoya looks something like an artichoke carved from clay. Inside, it has cream-colored flesh with the flavor and texture of a vanilla or fruit custard. Grown in this country, atemoyas are also imported from South America and the West Indies. Look for a pale-green fruit that is slightly tender to finger pressure but that has not cracked open, which the fruit often does as it ripens. Keep the atemoya at room temperature for a day or two if it is not already softened and ready to eat when you bring it home. Once it is ripe, you can refrigerate the fruit for a day or two as it tastes best chilled. To serve, cut the atemoya in half through the stem end and scoop out the flesh with a spoon. Or use cubed atemoya in a fruit salad. Atemoyas have decent amounts of fiber, riboflavin, and vitamin C.
3. Breadfruit: The size of a large melon, weighing 2 to 5 pounds, breadfruit—as its name implies—is a starchy, somewhat bland food that is notable for its high carbohydrate content, which is comparable to that of many vegetables: A 4-ounce portion, or about one-fourth of the edible part of a small fruit, contains 31 grams of carbohydrate, which account for close to 100 percent of the calories. The fruit is also a good source of vitamin C, thiamin, and potassium. Breadfruit has been an important staple for many years in the Pacific islands and the Caribbean. (The infamous Captain Bligh mentioned above was on a mission to transport breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the English colonies of St. Vincent and Jamaica when his crew mutinied.) Though it is a tree fruit covered with a scaly green rind, the starchy consistency of its pale-yellow flesh has made it better suited for eating as a vegetable. The flesh resembles that of a potato when unripe, and can be used like a potato at this stage. As breadfruit ripens slightly, it softens, and it is creamier and stickier (but still starchy) when cooked. After further ripening, breadfruit turns very soft, but its sweetness never matches that of the mango and papaya.
Imported from the Caribbean, breadfruit can be found in grocery stores in West Indian and Caribbean neighborhoods. Choose a hard, firm, evenly colored specimen. If you want the fruit to reach the soft, creamy stage, ripen it at room temperature until it gives to the touch. You can then refrigerate it for a day—but no longer—if not using it immediately. Breadfruit, like potatoes, can be baked in its skin, or it can be peeled, cut up, and boiled. Ripe breadfruit can be made into a sweetened, baked pudding.
4. Buddha’s hand: Also known as fingered citron, this citrus fruit grows in a cluster of fingerlike sections and looks vaguely like a human hand. Like other citrons, this fruit is not used for its pulp or juice (which it has none of), but for its fragrant yellow rind. The rind is used to flavor liquors and liqueurs, and is also candied.
5. Cactus pear (Indian pear, prickly pear, sabra): The prickly pear cactus grows in many parts of the world. Its large egg-shaped berry—a pinkish- or yellowish-brown fruit covered with spines—is popular in Mexico and the American Southwest, as well as all over the Mediterranean, in South Africa, and in Israel (whose natives are nicknamed “sabras” for their supposed resemblance to cactus fruit: prickly on the outside and sweet on the inside). You can eat the melony-flavored fruit by itself, or use it in fruit salads or drinks. Choose cactus pears that are soft but not mushy. Let them ripen at room temperature for a few days if they are firm when you buy them, then refrigerate. To eat the juicy flesh, which is full of seeds—edible in some types, too hard to chew in others—you have to get past the prickly skin. Wear thick rubber gloves, use tongs, or hold the fruit impaled on a fork to protect yourself, then cut off the ends of the fruit, slit it lengthwise in several places, and peel the skin off. The cactus pear has dietary fiber, vitamin C, and a respectable amount of magnesium.
6. Canistel (egg fruit, yellow sapote): One of several fruits called sapote, the canistel is a yellow, smooth-skinned fruit whose shape varies from egg-shaped to peach shaped to persimmon-shaped. The flesh is yellow-orange and has been described as having the consistency of a hard-boiled egg yolk. The flavor, similar to other sapotes, has a richness that suggests custard, or perhaps a sweet potato custard. Canistel is grown primarily in the tropics, but there are local crops of canistel available in Florida, the only state to successfully grow the fruit.
7. Cherimoya: Sometimes called a custard apple or sherbet fruit, the cherimoya looks like an oversized green pine cone. It is grown in South and Central America and the Caribbean, and more recently has been cultivated in California and Florida. The cherimoya is a wonderful dessert fruit, with sweet, juicy, custard-like flesh and a flavor reminiscent of pineapple, papaya, banana, mango, or strawberry, depending on the variety. Select fruits of any size with uniform yellow-green color, and let them ripen at room temperature until just softened but not mushy, like a ripe peach. Chill and serve cold. The easiest way to eat this seed-filled fruit is to spoon it from the shell. Cherimoya is a good source of fiber, riboflavin, and vitamin C.
8. Durian: This fruit has such a pungent odor that it has been likened to extremely dirty feet. In Southeast Asia, where the fruit grows, signs in hotel rooms strictly forbid guests from opening a durian in their room. The durian is quite large, reaching even the size of a basketball, and is covered with sharp spikes. The interior contains soft and sweet yellow flesh. If you can get past the fruit's overwhelming odor, its taste is extremely complex, ranging from grapefruit to Parmesan cheese to banana. The flavors are not blended, but present themselves in a succession of tastes. Some people have even suggested that there’s an onion flavor as well. While fresh durian is sometimes available in local Chinatowns, it’s more likely to be canned or frozen. In spite of its stinky reputation, durian is an exceptional source of B vitamins, most notably thiamin. It also has good amounts of vitamin C, fiber, and potassium.
9 Feijoa: This egg-shaped, egg-sized green fruit resembles a fuzzless kiwifruit. It is native to South America and is grown today in New Zealand and California. Its dense, pale yellow flesh has a slightly gritty texture similar to that of a Bosc pear, with a tart flavor and a strong fragrance. A ripe feijoa should feel similar to a ripe pear. Also known as pineapple guava, feijoa is frequently mislabeled in produce markets as common guava. Feijoa can be halved and eaten with a spoon, used in fresh fruit salads, or cooked in compotes. The edible skin may be bitter; if so, peel the fruit before serving. And, like pear, the fruit will discolor when cut and exposed to the air. So rub it with lemon juice or submerge in a bowl of water with lemon juice mixed in.
10. Guava: A tropical fruit believed to have originated in Central America, the guava plant was domesticated more than 2,000 years ago. It thrives in a variety of soils, propagates easily, and bears fruit relatively quickly. Considered the “apple of the tropics,” guava is common throughout most tropical regions, where it enriches the diet of millions of people. The average guava is 2 to 4 inches in diameter with knobby skin that can vary from yellow to yellowish-red to deep purple. The flesh may be pale yellow—almost white in appearance—or soft salmon to bright red. The flavor ranges from sweet to sour. While guava is grown throughout the world, it is often plagued by fruit-fly infestations, which cuts down on the amount of guava imported to this country. Domestic crops are grown in Hawaii, California, and Florida.
Though there are numerous varieties of guava grown in tropical regions worldwide, the following are available in the United States: Blitch (tart, with light pink flesh and numerous seeds), Red Indian (red-fleshed with numerous seeds), Ruby (sweet, red-fleshed, with few seeds), Strawberry (small purple fruit whose flavor is reminiscent of the strawberry), and Supreme (white-fleshed, with few seeds). Though fresh guavas can be hard to find, many supermarkets and any Latin market sell cans of guava paste, which is a cooked down purée of guava. Guava is an excellent source of vitamin C. Just a single guava (about 4 ounces) provides more than twice the RDA. Guava also contains a variety of carotenoids, most notably lycopene.
11. Jackfruit: This huge fruit is a relative of the breadfruit and is considered the largest fruit in the world, weighing up to a whopping 80 pounds. Shaped like a rugby football and covered with small bumps and spines, it has blandly sweet, banana-flavored, yellow flesh. The unripe flesh, which is starchier, is treated more like a vegetable than a fruit. A ripe jackfruit will have a yellow-brown skin and the fruit will have a slight give. Unfortunately, the ripe fruit also smells like decayed onions. However, cooks in this country are unlikely to encounter a fresh jackfruit. More commonly it is sold dried or in cans in markets that specialize in Indian or Southeast Asian products.
12. Kumquats: Diminutive citrus fruits that can be eaten skin and all, kumquats are as decorative as they are tasty. The egg-shaped orange fruits are about 1 1/2 inches long and often come with their shiny dark-green leaves attached. Kumquats are in best supply in the winter and may be found in supermarkets as well as Asian grocery stores and gourmet markets. Choose plump, shiny, fully orange fruits. Be sure to wash them before serving, since the skin as well as the pulp is eaten. To mingle the flavors of the sweet rind and tart flesh, squeeze the kumquats between your fingers before biting into the fruit. Add kumquat slices to fruit salad and use the whole or sliced fruit as an edible garnish. You can also use kumquats in cooked dishes that call for oranges. Kumquats are an excellent source of vitamin C. Just a 4-ounce serving (about 5 kumquats) supplies 47 percent of the RDA in only 71 calories.
13. Longan: These grape- to plum-sized Asian fruits, which are related to lychees, are sometimes called “dragons’ eyes,” because peeling their thin brown shells reveals a transparent, jellylike fruit with a large, dark seed in its center. Look for fresh longans in Asian markets in late summer. Choose heavy fruits with uncracked shells. Longans are most commonly eaten raw (serve them on their stems, like grapes), but they can also be poached. You can also buy dragons’ eyes in their dried form in Chinese markets. Fresh longans are among the richer sources of vitamin C, with 4 ounces supplying over 100 percent of the RDA.
14. Loquat: This golden-skinned tropical fruit resembles an apricot, but its firm, sweet-tart flesh—which can be orange, yellow, or white—tastes something like plums or cherries. In fact, when loquats were first introduced to this country from Asia, they were marketed as Japanese plums. Choose large loquats that are tender and fragrant. Stem, peel, and seed them before eating out of hand or cooking. Like other yellow-orange fruits, loquats are a good source of beta carotene.
15. Lychee: Related to longans, lychees sometimes appear on the dessert menu at Chinese restaurants. Once stripped of their nubbly, reddish-brown shells, these fruits look like large white grapes, each with a single large, glossy seed within its pale flesh. They have a sweet, flowery fragrance and flavor. Fresh lychees can be found in Asian markets in the summer months. Select heavy, uncracked fruits with the stems still attached. The redder the shells, the fresher the lychees. Unpeeled, the fruit can be stored for up to 3 weeks in the refrigerator. Serve whole lychees one at a time (they need to be peeled), or peel several and sprinkle with a little lime or lemon juice to heighten the flavor. They can also be cut up and combined with berries or other soft fruit, or poached. Canned and dried lychees, the latter of which has a raisin-like texture, are also sold in Asian grocery stores. Lychees are rich in vitamin C: Just 4 ounces (about 10 fruits) supply almost 100 percent of the RDA.
16. Mangosteen: This clementine-sized, red-skinned fruit has seeded segments much like a tangerine, but the flesh is bright white to light pink. The flavor is deep and fruity, and is said to resemble a combination of grapes and strawberries. Though it is grown in Hawaii, the fresh fruits are consumed locally, and imports from other parts of the world are severely restricted.
17. Monstera: The familiar houseplant called split-leaf philodendron is the source of this unusual fruit. It grows like an elongated pine cone. When ripe, the hexagonal plates on its surface split apart, exposing a creamy, tart-sweet fruit that looks something like a banana, with a pineapple-banana flavor. Monstera, called ceriman in Spanish-speaking countries, grows in Florida and California and is sometimes sold in gourmet produce markets in northern U.S. cities. If you buy it, let it ripen at room temperature; do not eat it until it is fully ripe—when the surface scales fall off—or it will irritate your mouth and throat.
18. Passion fruit: An egg-shaped tropical fruit that is also called a purple granadilla, the passion fruit has a brittle, wrinkled, purple-brown rind enclosing flesh-covered seeds, something like those of a pomegranate. The seeds are edible, so you can eat the orange pulp straight from the shell, but passion fruit is more commonly sieved and its highly aromatic pulp or juice used as a flavoring for beverages and sauces. Native to Brazil, passion fruits are now grown in Hawaii, Florida, and California. These crops, along with imports from New Zealand, keep passion fruit on the market all year. Choose large, heavy specimens. If the skin is not deeply wrinkled, keep the fruit at room temperature until it does wrinkle. The leathery rind, however, will not soften much. Ripe passion fruit can be refrigerated for a few days. Passion fruit has about 110 calories per 4-ounce serving, but supplies 38 percent of the RDA for vitamin C. It is also a good source of riboflavin, niacin, iron, and potassium. And if eaten with the seeds, it is an excellent source of dietary fiber.
19. Pepino: Its melon-like flavor could fool you about the pepino’s place in the plant kingdom. It is a member of the nightshade family, like peppers and tomatoes. The heart-shaped golden fruit is marked with purple stripes or patches. Pepinos, which range from plum-sized to cantaloupe-sized, have fragrant yellow flesh surrounding a central pocket of seeds, like a melon. Choose aromatic fruits that give to gentle finger pressure. The size has no effect on the flavor, but avoid those with greenish undertones. Ripen the fruit at room temperature for a few days, if necessary, until it is fully golden-yellow. Serve pepino like melon, with a squeeze of lemon or lime, or use it in fruit salads. There are also purple pepinos, which are shaped like regular pepinos, but are more slender. The golden flesh tastes similar to regular pepinos, with the sweet taste underscored by a hint of cucumber.
20. Pitaya (apple cactus): Often called “dragon fruit,” this South American cactus fruit has a grainy, white flesh and a pink skin with green spikes. Pitaya has a very mild sweetness and is available in dry varieties.
21. Pomelo (pummelo): An ancestor of today’s grapefruit, the pomelo is a citrus fruit that looks like a super-sized grapefruit with a narrower end. It originated in Southeast Asia and today is grown in California. Pomelos have yellow or greenish-yellow skin, with fibrous flesh separated into segments by membranes. Their flavor may range from very tart to very sweet. Look for pomelos in gourmet produce shops and Asian markets from late fall through mid-winter. Select heavy, fragrant fruits and store them in the refrigerator.
The segments inside a pomelo can be a bit difficult to get to. The rind surrounding the flesh is extremely thick, and you have to cut off some of it and then remove the rest of it before you even get to the fruit inside. Then, you have to pull off the membranes that surround the segments, because unlike grapefruit, the membranes are tough and inedible. The pulp is also quite thick-skinned compared to a grapefruit. But don’t be misled by this, as the “flavor cells” are very juicy. Although you can use the pomelo segments the way you would grapefruit, the fruit is most often eaten out of hand. Perhaps this is because it is quite a labor-intensive fruit to prepare for cooking. Like all citrus fruits, pomelos are an excellent vitamin C source, providing more than 75 percent of the RDA in 4 ounces, or about 1/2 cup of sections.
22. Rambutan: The rambutan, another tropical fruit that is rarely found fresh in this country (though it’s grown in Hawaii), looks more like a sea anemone than a fruit. Similar to a lychee or a longan, this grape-sized fruit is covered with hair-like tentacles. Inside it has a sweet, milky-white, grapelike flesh that surrounds a single, large black seed.
23. Sapodilla: Native to the lower Americas, this small fruit (2 to 4 inches in diameter) has a rough brown skin and yellow to brownish flesh. Its texture is like a very ripe pear, and its flavor has been described as being a mixture of brown sugar and root beer. The sapodilla tree can grow to over 100 feet, and its principal commercial use is as a source of chicle, a gummy latex substance in the tree’s bark that's used as a component of chewing gum.
24. Sapote: Several quite different fruits have come to be called sapote or sapota. The white sapote, common in tropical markets, is a nearly seedless, orange-sized fruit with a green-to-yellow skin and mild, creamy-textured white flesh. It has been grown in California since the 19th century and also grows in Florida, but it is still relatively scarce in northern U.S. markets. Mamey sapote are about the size of a large sweet potato, with pink-orange flesh and hints of berry flavor. The black sapote, grown in Florida, looks like a green persimmon, which it is actually related to. Sapote is also called chocolate pudding fruit, because its flesh is chocolatey-brown and it even tastes a bit like chocolate, but only when perfectly ripe. Unripe black sapotes tend to be bitter. Choose firm sapotes to ripen at room temperature for a few days, then refrigerate them once they are soft. Some sapotes can be eaten out of hand, but others are best peeled and seeded.
25. Soursop (guanabana): A relative of the atemoya, these tart, juicy fruits are heart-shaped with a rough green skin that has soft fleshy spines. Though it’s rare to find fresh soursop, you can reliably find cans of guanabana juice in Latin markets.
26. Starfruit (carambola): A ready-made garnish, the golden-yellow starfruit, when sliced crosswise, yields perfect five-pointed, star-shaped sections—hence its name. Its sweet-tart flavor is like a blend of several fruits: plums, pineapple, grapes, and lemons. This elliptical, deeply ribbed fruit, 2 to 5 inches long, originated in Southeast Asia but is now grown in Florida. Look for shiny, well-shaped fruit. The skin on unripe fruit is green, but ripening at room temperature will turn it a deep, glowing gold and the fruit will develop a fragrant aroma. Slice the unpeeled fruit and remove the seeds. Use the slices as a garnish for salads, poultry, desserts, or beverages. Starfruit slices can also be sautéed and served as a condiment or dessert topping. Starfruit is an excellent source of vitamin C, supplying 27 percent of the RDA in 1 cup sliced.
27. Tamarillo: This subtropical “tree tomato” is, in fact, related to the tomato (as well as to the potato and eggplant). It looks like an elongated plum, with skin colors ranging from purplish-red or crimson to orange. Its dark orange flesh has a plum-like texture but an acidic, somewhat astringent flavor. It tastes vaguely like a tomato. There is also a golden tamarillo, with yellow skin, which tends to be a bit sweeter. Tamarillos grown in California are available in late fall and winter. In other months, you can find imports from New Zealand. Look for well-colored fruit that gives just slightly to finger pressure. Ripen at room temperature if necessary.
Tamarillos are best cooked before using. They can be sweetened and used as a dessert, or used unsweetened and cooked with savory foods and seasonings, as you would tomatoes. Either way, they must be peeled. Immerse them in boiling water for three to five minutes, as you would peaches, to loosen the skins.
28. Tamarind: Also known as tamarindos or Indian dates, the tamarind fruit is actually a thick, sticky pulp with a consistency similar to dried fruit. The fruit surrounds seeds inside a hard, brittle seed pod. The pulp is both tart and sweet, like a sour apricot. You can eat the pulp straight out of the pod, which you can occasionally find whole in Latin markets and some Indian markets. However, the process of getting the pulp out of tamarind pods is a bit labor-intensive, so most people who cook with it buy bricks of tamarind pulp. There are also numerous tamarind purées and concentrates available in jars.
29. Ugli fruit: This poor citrus fruit, bred by crossing a grapefruit with an orange or tangerine, is indeed ugly. The grapefruit-sized fruit has a puffy, saggy skin that looks like it’s several sizes too big, but the pinkish-orange flesh is sweeter than grapefruit and nearly seedless. Ugli fruit originated in Jamaica and is now grown in Florida. There has been a marketing push to rename it "uniq fruit," but it hasn’t stuck. Choose heavy fruit that gives slightly to finger pressure. Use ugli fruit as you would grapefruit or oranges.
3 ways to serve exotic fruits
- Cut ripe or canned jackfruit into cubes and toss with an equal amount of cubed banana. Sprinkle with ground cardamom and some brown sugar, and toss with plain yogurt and chopped cilantro. Serve as a refreshing side dish alongside curried dishes.
- Make a dessert sauce with fresh loquats. Put loquats in boiling water for about 1 minute to loosen their skins. Peel, halve, and remove the seeds. Cut the loquats into cubes. Cut an equal amount of nectarines into cubes. Sauté the fruit in a bit of olive oil and apple juice. Add some sugar, to taste. Let the fruit get hot, but not mushy. Serve over frozen yogurt.
- Use mashed white sapote in a banana bread recipe. Scoop the ripe flesh out of the sapote skin and measure out the same amount of sapote as the mashed bananas called for in the recipe. Call it “sapote bread.”
Also see Making the Case for Fruit.