(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 8, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Explorers from England, Spain, France and Germany brought many new things to the western world from the faraway tropical paradises they fell in love with. Spices, gems, textiles, strange animals, nuts, and some of the strangest looking fruit that anyone at that time had ever seen! Apples, pears and oranges were one thing, but how was one supposed to eat a pineapple?!
By the time most of these explorers reached the tropics, their supplies had run very low and they were at the mercy of what the islands had to offer in the way of victuals. Not only did they find these strange looking vegetables, tubers and fruits tasty, they also began to notice that much of their general health improved when adding them to the usual sailor’s diet of salt beef and biscuits. Captain Cook always concerned for his crew’s health, made reference to this in one of his reports to the Admiralty. The importation of tropical fruits to the west began there, and never stopped.
Over the years we have become blasé about some fruits that are purely tropical in origin – pineapple, coconut, and bananas. And, depending on ones ethnic background and geographical location, fruits such as avocados, tomatillos, prickly pear, guavas, papayas and mangoes are also becoming much more mainstream than they were even a few decades ago. But there are still many people who have never eaten a pomegranate, a kiwifruit or a passion fruit, though they would probably recognize the names. How about tamarind, horned melon, Polynesian chestnut, or dragon fruit?
Over in the Tropical Gardening Forum of DG, we have had many conversations about tropical fruit. Some of these have strange, exotic sounding names. Some are limited in their growing area, and therefore are relatively unknown in other parts of the world. And some are just, well…odd.
AlohaHoya and Wrightie have been waxing rhapsodically about the euphoria that a ripe mangosteen will bring to one’s taste buds. Since I had never even heard of mangosteen, or Garcinia mangostana, I did a little checking. These two DGers are not alone in their esteem for the little Indonesian native. Queen Victoria is said to have offered a Knighthood to anyone who could bring her the fresh fruit. People the world over, who have been lucky enough to enjoy this fruit ripe off the tree have created a demand that brings a $45.00 per pound price tag in some places. Until the last year or so, the importation of this fruit was illegal in the United States because of fear of the Asian Fruit Fly, which could devastate American crops. With irradiation now available, perhaps we will shortly be able to enjoy the "peachlike" flavor of this unusual fruit at less exorbinate prices.
Caribblue and Stellamarina have been sharing their knowledge and recipes of breadfruit – yep, that ignominious cause of the Bounty’s mutiny. Botanically known as Artocarpus altilis, breadfruit is really not a fruit, nor bread, but it is full of starch, and therefore a staple food in many tropical areas. One evening on a nearby island, I was entertained by a group of women who put on the most fantastic feast – and nearly every dish was breadfruit! It was cooked in a marvelous variety of ways, and from appetizers to dessert, everything was delicious. Since that time I have been on the hunt for breadfruit recipes. Breadfruit is, as I mentioned, very starchy, with a consistency and flavor much like a potato, so it can be used in any dish that one would consider a potato for. But then there was that wonderful pudding, so maybe you could also consider it for breadlike recipes… hmmm.
Quite a few conversations have revolved around durian - Durio zibethinus . In some places the durian is known as the "King of Fruits"… and it apparently is an acquired taste. The odor of the fruit is so strong and disagreeable that it is forbidden to take it on public transport in many places throughout Southeast Asia, and many public buildings and hotels also ban the fruit. The flavor is described as an almondy custard, and the aroma is described as month old gym socks pulled from a sewer and dunked in turpentine. I think I’ll eat my almondy custard from eggs, thanks anyway.
Finally I would like to introduce you to soursop, or Annona muricata. On a recent trip to the island of Pohnpei, we found soursop mixed drinks, soursop sorbet, soursop tea, candy and even a marinade for fish. On our first night there, one of our party tried the drink and passed it around for tasting – the general consensus being that it tasted like onions. I thought it tasted like pineapple, but I was voted down. Some in our group really liked it, others, not so much. I was taken into the kitchen at one point to examine the opened fruit, and I was amazed at the size. It was easily a foot and a half long, maybe half that wide, and probably weighed in at 7 or 8 pounds! The creamy white interior was infused with dozens of button sized black seeds. I was looking at a large guanabana! Until then I did not realize that the soursop that was so prevalent on the island was the same fruit whose juice I enjoyed when in Mexico.
There are dozens of tropical fruit that I didn’t mention here, so now it is your turn. Just as I learned in Pohnpei, a familiar fruit may have a strange name somewhere else; or a familiar name may have a taste that transports you to your own tropical isle. Become your own culinary explorer, and boldly go and taste where you have never tasted before. If you like what you taste – plant the seeds!
Photo 2 : Joseph Dufour et Cie Jean-Gabriel Charvet Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique [The Voyages of Captain Cook] 1805
Collection of the National Gallery of Australia