Monday, August 29, 2005

The new kiwis

Years ago, a mention of exotic or tropical fruit conjured up images of dancing pineapples, wooly coconuts, and golden bananas dancing alongside the likes of the Hawaiian Punch mascot.
Now, these former representatives of the entirely exotic have become market mainstays retaining little of their old novelty or mystery. In their place have arrived a fantastical assortment of rarely seen fruits coming in expressive shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors that could only be described as unlikely hybrids of commonplace fruits with slightly more complexity and kick.

Demand from chefs, specialty markets, and savvy consumers has greatly increased for these exotic fruits, leading to a booming influx of imports and domestic growth. I was first introduced to these odd gems while traveling in Asia and Central America, and it has been a combination of my own hunger and nostalgic romanticism that has moved me to search them out stateside. While there is a boom of sorts going on, it is still a big challenge to find things like mangosteen, rambutan, and pitaya in any conventional market. However, since demand is increasing you should expect to see a variety of new fruits, domesticated and grown right here in the United States (especially California), adding some color to the produce bin at your local farmer's market or high priced specialty store. This is a pretty significant development considering the leap of faith and lengthy cultivation process that had to occur in some central valley backwater in order to bring these fruits to domestic soil without importation. I spoke to Karen Caplan, President of Frieda’s, a specialty produce company out of Southern California that distributes these fruits, both imported and domestic, to markets nationwide. Her company (specifically her mother who previously ran the company) is responsible for bringing the hugely popular Kiwi to the United States and encouraging their domestic cultivation. “It took the kiwi eighteen years to catch on, and I think it might take some of these new fruits a while to gain widespread acceptance,” says Caplan.

So while you wait for the influx of exotic goodness some noteworthy favorites to look for are:

Feijoas - Originally from South America and popularly known as Pineapple Guava, the Feijoa is an oval fruit similar in appearance to the avocado. It has a creamy-tan flesh that has a tangy and aromatic flavor reminiscent of pineapple and passion fruit with slight mint overtones.

Tamarillos – Related to both the tomato and the potato, the tamarillo, also from South America, is an egg-shaped, crimson fruit, containing a tart orange pulp with a rich blending of sweet and sour. Also referred to as a tree tomato, this is an ideal fruit for salads, sauces, or jams.

Rambutan – Native of Malaysia, the name Rambutan is derived from the Malay word for hair. This intimidating looking fruit is covered in a soft carpet of gold and pink spines and holds a sweet white-pitted fruit that is similar in texture and flavor to a peeled white grape.

Pitaya – Widely known as Dragon Fruit because of its scaly dragon-like appearance on the vine, the Pitaya is by far the most striking and exotic of the bunch. Native to Latin America, the Pitaya is a cactus family fruit that has a sweet and juicy magenta or white flesh with many small edible seeds. Since they tend to be crazy expensive (maybe $8 to $12 per lb), they are best chilled and savored slowly.