by Kate Heyhoe
If you were to judge most tropical fruits by their covers, you'd likely starve in paradise—they simply don't look appetizing. But inside their bumpy, hairy, prickly or just plain ugly skins, tropical fruits can be vividly colorful, juicy, sweet, tangy and succulent. Many of these gems are now available fresh year-round, and others are captured frozen, canned and as juices, so their aromatic flavors and vivid colors can brighten meals in all seasons.
Passion Fruit is a perfect "beauty-is-on-the-inside" example. Instead of becoming more attractive as it ripens, the egg-shaped passion fruit looks distinctly uninviting. As Florida Chef Norman Van Aken describes it, "the ripe fruit looks like a handball that has just had a serious workout on the driveway." Indeed, the dark red to purple skin grows wrinkled and even sags when ripe, while its interior jelly-like pulp and edible seeds turn juicy and sweetly tart, ready to be scooped out with a spoon.
Native to Brazil but also cultivated in Asia and the Pacific, the passion fruit is actually the largest berry in the world; hence its numerous edible seeds. It is sometimes called sweet granadilla, and in Hawaii, "liliko'i." If fresh passion fruit is hard to come by, look for frozen concentrated passion fruit in Asian markets. Frozen juice is suitable in some recipes, but it can be sweeter than fresh and may require using less sugar.
Spanish missionaries so-named the passion fruit because in its striking purple flowers they saw symbols of Christ's passion. Three central stigmas represent the three nails of the cross, the feathery corona resembled the crown of thorns, and the five anthers depict the five wounds.
Pineapple, a familiar fruit to us now, must have looked quite threatening to Columbus and the Spaniards when they first encountered them. But after these explorers tasted just what that this armored package of spikes and thorny eyes was protecting, they dispatched precious samples back to the homeland. The cultivated pineapple spread to India, Southeast Asia, and to Britain, who introduced it to the Hawaiian Islands around 1790. Today, Hawaii and pineapples are almost synonymous.
Coconuts, another staple of Pacific Island and Asian cooking, carry even more unsightly protection. Before you can get to the tender white flesh (the coconut meat) and sweet liquid (the "water" or juice) of this palm fruit, you have to first crack through a smooth but tough, gray husk, and then remove a dense layer of hairy, brown fibers. Usually this is done before shipping, so what we see in the markets is the familiar oval, brown nut with three eyes, but it too is a hard nut to crack.
Still, breaking into a coconut is well worth the effort. In many cases, chefs go the easier route, letting someone else break the coconut for them, by buying pre-shredded or flaked coconut meat, or canned coconut milk or coconut cream. Don't confuse coconut milk with the liquid heard sloshing around in a fresh coconut—that's the coconut juice. Coconut milk is the liquid squeezed and strained from equal parts coconut meat and water, simmered together. The thicker, richer coconut cream is made the same way, but uses four parts coconut to one part water. This is not the same ingredient though as "cream of coconut," which also comes canned but is sweetened and commonly used in mixed drinks.
Mangoes and papayas aren't quite as challenging as the coconut to break into, but they each have their own peculiarities.
Mangos, for instance, have a tough, leathery peel that can cause rashes on some people's skin, and as with cling-stone peaches, their large seed is messy to remove. Literally hundreds of varieties exist, most fragrant and sweet, but a few taste naturally of turpentine and are to be positively avoided. Ethnic markets sell some of the less common but more luscious mango varieties, which can be very exciting in their range of flavors, colors, sizes and shapes. Some are as small as eggs, others as large as coconuts. Not all mangoes go from green to a reddish blush when ripe; some stay green, yellow or even purple. The best indicators of ripeness are fragrance and a slight yield to gentle pressure. Mangoes will continue to ripen at room temperature, but even unripe mangoes are prized for their tartness and are used in salads, pickles, chutneys, and soups. In India, green mangoes are dried to make a sour powder known as amchoor.
As with mangoes, papayas range in type, size and color, and the best indicator of ripeness is a yield to gentle pressure. Weighing from one to 20 pounds, papayas can also be eaten sweet and ripe, or tart and immature. Unlike the mango's single large pit, papayas contain multiple loose black seeds that are edible, often used as a peppery spice. The fruit contains papain, a digestive enzyme that functions as a natural meat tenderizer and is a main ingredient in commercial meat tenderizers. In fact, the papaya's tenderizing enzyme is so effective it has been used to shrink swollen or pinched disks in back injuries.
Of course, not all tropical fruits look strange or have bizarre properties, and thanks to the creativity of great chefs, diners get an opportunity to sample the more uncommon tropical fruits. and because of specialty produce suppliers like Frieda's in California, some of these exotic gems now make their way from plantations in paradise to upscale markets, where avid cooks can explore at home the complexities of these enticing fruits.
Naseberry and otaheite apples are two such fruits. From tropical America, the naseberry, more commonly known as sapodilla, is redolent with hints of pears, cinnamon and brown sugar. The stems of this fruit are the source of chicle, used in chewing gum, though the fruit itself bears no resemblance to the gummy latex-like substance.
Native to Southeast Asia, the otaheite apple has its own versatile applications, being made into curries, jams, drinks, wine and desserts when ripe. (Tahiti was once called Otaheiti.) The fruit resembles a vivid green mango, and even tastes somewhat like a mango-flavored apple. When unripe, the same fruit adds a tart, sour element to soups, sauces and stews. Even the leaves are used to steam a pleasant acidity into fish or rice.
No chef in his or her right mind would ever serve the ugliest fruits au natural, in their rough shells and rumpled skins, but fortunately these fruits' interior delicacies offer chefs a glorious palate of colors and flavors. As world-class chefs know, if you're willing to go beyond skin-deep, these tropical treats can grace any table with unparalleled fragrance, luscious flavors—and incomparable beauty as well.
Kate's Global Kitchen for October, 2001:10/06/01 Black Magic Month: Halloween Count-Down
Copyright © 2001, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created October 2001
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