For those out there who have been to Southeast Asia, fruit is something you likely miss dearly if you are now elsewhere. For me, Guangzhou was a perfect introduction to many fruits, at a time when food in China was very cheap while imports were plenty from Southeast Asia and Hainan Island. China is where I first experienced papayas, rambutans, bayberries, durian, among others. Later in life I moved to Thailand, and I experienced many, many new fruits, several that don’t make it to export. For a long time my favorite fruit, the mangosteen (mangkut มังคุด in Thai), was in that category. Finally in 2006, imports began to the US, and now they are a fairly regular find in Asian markets (according to season in Southeast Asia anyway).
Yesterday we were in New York, and La picked up mangosteens and rambutans from Manhattan’s Chinatown. Both of these fruit are also occasional offerings in Philadelphia. Chinatown’s markets as well as Washington Ave’s large markets regularly carry Southeast Asian fruits.
For those of you who have not experienced mangosteen, they are quite unique. The shell is almost woody, and you have to score the outside with a very sharp knife, taking care not to dig too deep or go all the way through. You can then pry it open to reveal the luscious white flesh inside:
The segments inside are about the size of a mandarin orange, but the flavor is sweet, perfumed, and creamy, and the texture is like a fibrous watery peach. There is a large dark seed, usually just one, and I usually just eat the segments out of the shell and spit out the seed. If the flesh looks grey and deflated, you got a dud. Look for purple firm fruit rather than brown and soft.
Another popular fruit in Thailand that is not so common in the States is the rambutan. In Thai this is known as ngo เงาะ. In both fruit, the names into English came through Indonesian/Malaysian.
Rambutans have a very unusual appearance, a creepy, alien, hairy fruit. They can be opened in much the same way as mangosteens (with much less pressure), by scoring the circumference of the fruit and popping it open.
The consistency of this fruit is like a tough grape, with a large seed inside. The flavor has a faint flowery perfume. This fruit is also commonly available in canned form, seedless and usually packed in syrup. This can be used to eat as a dessert with coconut milk or shaved ice.