Many people, when first exposed to tropical and subtropical rare and exotic fruit, find the fruit difficult to accept and enjoy. This is due, in many instances, to the following reasons.
1. The fruit often tastes different, and all too frequently, people try to compare the taste, aroma and flavour to familiar Occidental fruits or the better known tropical and subtropical fruits.
2. Very often the fruit, although enjoyed for its exotic flavor, lacks the crispness that we associate with many of our temperate-climate fruit such as apples and pears; by contrast, tropical fruits can be more properly compared to a spoon custard.
3. In many cases the fruit has a strong flavour, and unless cut with a neutral-flavored fruit and extended, overwhelms our Occidental taste buds. Cases in point: passionfruit, acerola and many of the guavas. In many instances, the fruit has a strong aroma - frankly, it smells. Durian is a more extreme example: it tastes heavenly despite its smell. To overcome this aversion to tasting and eating one must bypass food prejudice. After all, Limburger cheese isn't known for its fragrance, but it does have its aficionados. Roquefort cheese doesn't exactly have eye-appeal, but most of us love the cheese. Our native American Indians used to catch and dry grasshoppers and made them part of their diet. Our native Southwest Indians caught and ate Chukawallas (lizards) and relished them. People eat rattlesnake steaks (I did once, inadvertently; it tastes like white chicken meat) and snails (escargots), loved by many Europeans. The Chinese, American Plains Indians and the Aztecs of Mexico used to raise and keep dogs for food.
4. It takes time. Early attempts to introduce avocados suggested that they be adulterated with familiar flavors (onions, tomato juice, various cheeses) and that they also be used as a bread-spread with salt and pepper. Now the accepted form for many is as a dip or guacamole, and the aficionado generally halves the fruit and spoons it out of the half shell.
5. In all too many cases, fruit has been picked before maturity, and even when following the ripening instructions, it never measures up to its potential. If one takes an immature avocado and tries to ripen it, it will end up shrivelled and rubbery - no comparison to the buttery consistency of a ripened mature avocado used at its peak of texture and flavour.
6. Many times the fruit is too acid (sour) for Occidental tastes and is more acceptable either cooked into a sauce, pureed or made into jellies. Often the fruit is best pickled or made into a chutney.
7. Very often our introduction to a fruit is unsatisfactory, because by the time it is available for purchase, it is past its prime, overripe or even fermented, as in the case of figs, jujubes, longans, lychees, guavas, white sapotes, cherimoyas and papayas. In some instances, the fruit is even mildly poisonous when overripe, e.g. durians and sapodilla. Conversely some fruit and vegetables at peak of ripeness contain a high sugar content, but after picking, the sugar turns back into starch, as in sweet corn; others break down by bacterial action, converting the sugar into alcohol, as in cherimoyas, white sapotes and rambutans.
8. In many instances, our familiarity with exotic fruit is in a form other than fresh, so this is the only way we associate and judge the taste. Fruit in this category include jujubes, longans and lychees. In other instances, our only familiarity is with the fruit processed into chutneys, ices, drinks and in combinations so heavily spiced and combined with other dominant flavors that the true taste of the fruit is unrecognizable. It's like saying I've eaten raisins so I know what a fresh grape tastes like. What you have obviously missed is the fruit's texture, crispness, aroma, tang, color, eye appeal and unoxidized natural juice. You have also missed the fruit's variation from its skin, through its flesh to its seeds or pit. Similarly when fruit is tree-ripened, it's a completely different fruit from what it is when purchased in a commercial market. For logistic reasons, most fruit is picked before ripening and, unfortunately in many cases, before it is mature.
9. Many tropical, subtropical, rare and exotic fruits have a broad range of flavor, acidity, sweetness and aroma. Some cultivars of fruits like the carambola are most often quite acid. But there are a number of cultivars that are very sweet. There is a great variation in texture, fiber content, flavor and taste in mangos. The variation in bananas is very great, as well as in cherimoyas, sweetsop, soursop and guavas. Cultivars of some fruits have a variable ratio of seed to edible pulp; seeds vary in size and quantity. If you were unfortunate in your first introduction to a fruit, and have experienced a bad cultivar, seedling or improper stage of ripeness, then you will need a re-introduction to that fruit as a choice cultivar at its prime. Some people never really enjoy Carissa grandiflora fresh out of hand even at its peak best. But I have met very few people who weren't completely won over as making one of the very best jellies they ever tasted when converted to Natal plum jelly. You may not care for fresh avocados, yet you might be thrilled with chilled avocado soup.
As we approach unfamiliar, exotic fruits, it helps to think a moment of the various familiar foods that man has adapted for his consumption. A partial list follows.
Without leaching with lye, acorns are indigestible to most people.
Very few, if anyone, can eat an astringent persimmon unless its fully ripe - accelerated by freezing or cold, or tree-ripened.
Most avocados ripen best and most uniformly off the tree when picked hard but mature.
Pears will not ripen uniformly on the tree, but must be picked hard, mature and ripened off of the tree. When left to ripen on the tree, they ripen from the core outward, and by the time the flesh next to the skin is ripe, the flesh next to the core has rotted or become overripe. This is also true for cherimoyas, white sapotes and many melons.
Quince is seldom enjoyed by most people when picked and eaten out of hand. A few people do enjoy them in this form, most people however find quince butter and jelly a delightful taste experience.
Remember, too, that just as one has preferences among temperate fruits, one may find his or her preferred type in the tropical, subtropical, rare and exotic fruits depending upon the cultivar. Well-known temperate fruit such as the apple have a wide range. They vary from soft and tender - almost mushy, to hard, almost tough; sour to very sweet; green to yellow; striped red to burgundy deep red; blushed, striped to totally colored; small, medium, large, very large and all sizes in between. The same is true of cherries, bramble berries, and stone fruits.
Just as many temperate fruits are not at their best when eaten out of hand - and certainly crab apples, currants, cranberries, choke cherries and quince fall into this category - so it goes with many of the exotic, less-known fruits. The Governor's plum, kaffir plum, kei apple, roselle, Natal plum, tropical and Cattley guavas are best utilized and more acceptable to Occidental tastes when made into juices, purees, jellies, ices, chutneys, or otherwise processed. Just as many temperate fruits are an acquired taste, so too, many of the exotics also have become an acquired taste, these through many years of exposure and acceptance as tribal or country taste.
Not many Occidentals have truly become aficionados of poi, yet poi is a food staple of many islands of the Pacific. Millet is a staple in much of Africa, corn in Mexico, potatoes in the Andes areas of South America and rice in most parts of Asia. The cultivation of grass seeds (oats, rye, wheat, barley etc.) started in the Middle East and spread to become a staple in most of Europe. We owe our allegiance to grass seeds to our European heritage. Because of our latitude range, the tempering effect of our oceans and warm currents, the United States is probably one of the few countries in the world where people can raise such a varied complement of fruits and vegetables. Our acceptance of this bounty is because we can have such a wide choice, not because we have no alternatives.
Tunas and various cactus fruit, mesquite berries, manzanita berries, sand cherries, acorn flour, taro root and cassava became food staples by many native tribes because they were the only source of starch or sweetness available. Even today in the jungles of Central and South America, Africa and South East Asia there is a dearth of large animal sources of protein, and the people derive most of their protein from fish, mollusks, etc. In South America, because of this scarcity, staple of the hunters is monkey meat.
The jungle floor is a poor place for higher forms of life to exist. Most life occurs in the upper canopy of the trees. The lower, shaded portion is mostly occupied by insects and the more recent settlers, Man, who generally has a tough time existing in the shaded jungle desert. Very few other large animals are in evidence, other than crocodiles, some large cats, and in the trees, mostly sloths and snakes.
Often in our zeal to plant ever more varieties of tropical, subtropical, rare and exotic fruits, we ignore what should be the basic reason for growing these fruits: we like their taste and they are available only with great difficulty, if at all, and when available, they are not of the quality we know they are capable of being. One must recognize that often many of the fruits from the tropics are no match for fruits of the temperate zone that are much more readily available and at a far lower cost.
One factor seldom considered is that much of the temperate-climate fruit has been tailored to North and South temperate zone population taste preferences by selection of clones, grafting, budding, hybridization and more recently, by tissue and gene culture. Our preferences include crispness, sweetness, flavor, taste-holding ability, storage life and multiple uses such as eating out of hand along with combinations with other fruits and foods, juices, ices, canning, jellies, compotes and in baking.
An excellent example of a tailored fruit product is applesauce. Generally the applesauce available commercially has been overcooked, pureed into a formless consistency, over-sugared and too often adulterated with preservatives. lt is in this form that generally it is the first fruit given to a baby. But you will find that a combination of softer, very sweet apples, with hard, crisp more acid apples can be made into an apple dessert that will retain its apple identity, need no sugar or spices and will be more akin to eating apples. It cooks on a lower heat for a shorter time as well. This is one of the fruit combinations or preparations that you don't have to condition yourself for, unlike many of the exotic and unique tropical fruits.
To create a bridge, one can combine many of the more familiar temperate fruits - various melons, pears, apples and citrus - with the less familiar tastes and flavors. Familiar nuts can also be used for this function. The tropical and subtropical fruits of custard consistency lend themselves well to conversion in ices, ice cream, baked sweet breads, muffins, pancakes and fruit cakes. Most often they lack sufficient body to retain identity and form, and the most pronounced evidence of their use will be primarily as a flavor and taste. I usually use these fruits instead of the liquid ingredient in the cake mix with good success.
Mangos are one of the exceptions. Generally I regard their texture, flavor and taste on a par with our better, firm, yellow peaches and enjoy them fresh, eaten 'out of hand'. They are also an excellent component of an exotic fruit salad, cobbler, pie or tarts. Asian pears can be used in a like manner. Many other fruits can be used similarly to rhubarb, as when made into pies, complemented with raisins and even shaved nuts (pecans, macadamias, walnuts, filberts, almonds). Instead of making a top crust out of pastry, I often make a medium thick paste from shaved nuts combined with canistel pulp (or a similar pulpy fruit), a beaten large egg plus one tablespoon of oil. I find that this mixture makes an excellent top crust for many of the unique fruit pies such as white sapote and sweet carambola. Your imagination is about your only limitation. Cutting out an aluminium foil disk to cover the nut crust until the last 10 minutes or so of baking, keeps the nut topping crust from browning too much.
In many instances, the fruit has too little body or fiber, so that it is best to make a custard out of the fruit to be used as a pie filling. With unknown or untried fruits, it is useful to make small custard cups as trials before committing larger quantities of the rare and often expensive fruit. Basically, the custard is the same as that used for banana cream pie. Many of the very rich, very sweet exotic fruits (many of the bananas, cherimoyas, white sapotes, persimmons, etc.) can be used in combinations with the exotic, more acid fruits such as pitanga, carambola, acerola, guavas, rose apple, kei apple, kaffir plums, capulin cherry, et al. Usually fruit flavors are not changed too much when baked or cooked, especially if you have experimented and learned to use the lowest practical heat for the shortest time. We find that an excellent way to determine whether fruit flavors combine to complement or negate each other is to use them in a fruit cocktail or salad. Make the pieces large enough so that when combining them in your mouth, each portion is large enough to impart its flavor. You will quickly find which combinations of flavors please your palate the most.
As we become acquainted with many more tropical, subtropical, rare and exotic fruit, we will learn to define the specific fruit as it tastes, like itself - not as I have heard Monstera deliciosa described: "Well it tastes like a banana (because of its shape?), like a pineapple (because of the fruit skin's texture?), and something different, hard to describe, but good." Just like the Feijoa sellowiana, also called a pineapple guava. Guava it is not, and it doesn't taste like a pineapple but like what it is, a feijoa.
Over the years we have originated and tried many rare fruit recipes that we have enjoyed and have been well received by friends. I will detail only one, however, that some of you may wish to try. We have a number of persimmons on our place (hachiya, fuyu, giant fuyu, tamopan and tanenashi), and at peak harvest time we tried different ways to use the fruit.
For those who have fully-mature, bearing trees - whether they be pears, apples, peaches, mangos, sapotes, feijoas, or? I highly recommend experimenting with different ways of using them - the possibilities are practically endless. As we try innovative methods, we can share our successful efforts. Who knows when a happy combination of fruits will result in a totally new fruit-taste experience.
DATE: September 1989
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