They nest, usually in an obscure spot in grocery produce sections, looking like the Addams family of fruits — a little creepy, in no way cuddly, some covered in what looks like coarse hair, others badly wizened, and still others all punky-like with spikes.
If the sight of them just brushes the corner of your vision, your brain may register “rotten” or “freaky,” what with banana skins so dark they’re almost mahogany; green grapes covered in papery peels; and runty, stunted pineapples the size of a kitten’s head.
Is this the discount bin for factory-second fruit? No — a glance at the prices will show that almost all of them are steep. If you want to get exotic, you have to pay the piper.
These strange food items are just that — exotic fruits, many imported from places most of us will never see, offered up to local feeders increasingly hungry for something new.
But nearly all of them beg the question, “What the hell am I supposed to do with that?”
Here’s a little help:
Let’s start with one you’ve at least heard of, and a personal favorite. It’s an example of a good fruit that looks like it’s gone bad, well past its salad days. Ripe passion fruit, which is about the size of a golf ball, has a deep purple, wrinkled leathery skin. Inside are black edible seeds coated in off-putting gelatinous green stuff. But it’s pure gold, with a unique tart fruity flavor, just a little citrus-y. Like most exotics, it can’t really be compared in taste with anything more familiar. The innards can be eaten right out of the leathery shell, or sieved for dessert sauces, or used to garnish fruit salad. Contrary to the common line that it’s named for an aphrodisiac quality that makes our lizard brains sit up and say, “yippee,” missionaries in its native Brazil long ago saw a resemblance in its flowers to markings on the crucified Christ.
Horned melon (kiwano)
Plop one of these down in the middle of your fruit bowl and watch the eyes of your guests widen. Oblong, yellow-orange and covered in hard, nubby spikes that are unpleasant to handle, it’s filled with cucumber-like seeds coated in bright green gel (almost a theme in exotic fruits). In fact, to my taste anyway, the flavor is similar to cuke with just a little fruit, and can be mixed in chopped salads, as the base for a cold soup, or stirred into the cooling Indian yogurt sauce, raita. Now grown in California and New Zealand, it originated in Africa.
This one looks like it dropped out of the sky to conquer Earth on behalf of a hairy planet. Actually, it comes from Southeast Asia, and in Malaysia the name means “hairy head.” It looks quite a bit like a small sea urchin, the hirsute yellow-to-red shell containing a mildly sweet, translucent, pearl-like nugget that can be mixed into fruit or green salads. Don’t just chomp down on it, though — it holds a single pit that can be used for spitting contests after dinner.
It looks a little runty and past its prime, but the red banana from the East Indies is ripe when its skin is a deep reddish-brown. The banana itself tastes pretty much like Chiquitas, but with a little berry flavor thrown in. Chef/author Norm Van Aiken (The Great Exotic Fruit Book, Ten Speed, $15.95) says one of its alternate names, Paradise banana, comes from Muslims who believe the banana was the true “forbidden fruit” that tempted Adam and Eve, and that the butt-nekkid couple actually used banana skins to cover their nether regions. Poor Adam — red bananas are much shorter than others.
Star fruit (carambola)
You’ve probably seen this waxy-skinned, oblong fruit from Southeast Asia that, when sliced crosswise, has the shape of a near-perfect five-pointed star. It is slightly crisp, citrus-y and a little tart. Because of its shape, it’s commonly used as a garnish, but can also be added to pancakes (lay a slice in the middle of the griddle and pour batter over it), salads and vegetable sautés. One of the simplest recipes I know uses it as a primary ingredient:
Emerald Green Broccoli with Star Fruit
Blanch fresh broccoli florets in plenty of heavily salted boiling water for about 3 minutes, then drain and plunge into ice water to stop the cooking and set the bright green color. Cut a washed star fruit into thin slices. Heat a tablespoon each of unsalted butter and olive oil in a non-stick pan, drain the florets and add to the pan with the star fruit. Sauté over high heat, flipping or stirring constantly, for about 3 minutes, or until heated through. Season to taste with red pepper flakes and serve.
By far the best and freshest exotic fruit selections that I’ve found in the area are the Papa Joe’s gourmet markets in Birmingham and Troy, and the Nino Salvaggio stores. There are also many sources of the fruit online and, as you might expect, plenty of recipes to be found.Ric Bohy is the editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org