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Nothing evokes a beach vacation more than feasting on a platter filled with a kaleidoscope of tropical fruit, such as mangos, pineapples, and lychees. Tropical fruits are fruits that are native to or grown in tropical regions, including Hawaii, Brazil, Thailand, and Vietnam. While there are nearly 3,000 tropical fruit species grown worldwide, only a small fraction is sold at U.S. farmers markets and grocery stores, with the most widely available varieties being bananas, mangos, and avocado.
However, in recent years, you might have noticed some previously hard-to-find varieties — from small bunches of red, hairy rambutans to large green, spiky jackfruits — sharing shelf spaces at grocery stores. Curious to try some new fruits or learn more about an old favorite? Here’s a list of 12 delicious tropical fruits you might come across at Asian markets, Latin American markets, farmers markets, or grocery stores, plus a description of what they taste like and how to pick them.
Also known as custard apple, cherimoya is native to Central and South America. As author Mark Twain wrote in Roughing It, cherimoya is “deliciousness itself” — a creamy, custard-like blend of pineapple, banana, and citrus. Pick cherimoyas that are green, with a cracked stem, and are soft to the touch, like a ripe mango or peach. If they’re still hard, you can leave them on the kitchen counter away from direct sunlight to ripen.
The fruit of the vine-like Hylocereus cactus, dragon fruit — aka pitaya — resembles a delicacy straight out of Game of Thrones. The fruit has the shape of a smooth artichoke with red skin and green tips. Dragon fruit’s white flesh and small black seeds taste like a blend between a delicate pear and kiwi. A ripe dragon fruit is bright pink with smooth skin and a green stem, and it’s slightly soft but not mushy. For a quick, no-fuss breakfast, cut the fruit in half and scoop out the flesh with a spoon.
In Southeast Asia, this “king of fruit” can cost upwards of $60 per fruit. There are several varieties, ranging from the bitter-sweet Mao Shan Wang to sweeter, fleshier Red Prawn durian.
Breaking through the medieval mace-like fruit takes skills and tools — first, you’ll need to wear thick gloves or use a towel to hold onto the fruit. Then, use a knife to cut an “x” at the bottom of the durian (if a knife doesn’t work, you can try using a flathead screwdriver and a hammer to push it through). Once you have a grip, you’ll have to pry open the durian, which is divided into five or six segments. Within each segment are two to four seeds surrounded by golden flesh with a custard-like texture.
Durian flesh tastes creamy and sweet, like a mix between custard and vanilla cheesecake. The pungent fruit has a distinct aroma, which has been described as a mix between rotten eggs, onions, and gas. But ask any durian aficionado, and they’ll tell you the scent of the durian is an important element of the flavor.
Make sure the durian you pick still has its stem, which should be light in color. A perfectly ripe durian should have green spikes with brown tips (bright green durians are still unripe, while brown durians are overripe). Durian will continue to ripen after picking and should be stored in a cool, dry place — although most people tend to eat the fruit the same day they purchase it. You can also freeze the durian for up to three months.
Native to Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and northern South America, guavas are tennis ball-sized tropical fruits with an edible peel, flesh, and seeds. Look for soft guavas with yellow, blemish- and bruise-free skin. Ripe guavas taste like a mix between a floral mango and strawberry with the texture of a pear.
Jackfruit is a highly versatile tropical fruit that can be eaten raw or cooked. Weighing as much as 10 to 25 pounds, jackfruit has bright yellow flesh that tastes like a blend of pineapple, banana, and citrus. When cooked, unripened jackfruit has a meaty texture that’s a great vegan substitute for pulled pork. Look for the whole fruit that has a strong scent, but is not blackened or soft. Jackfruit’s skin has sticky sap, so be sure to oil your knife before cutting lengthwise into the fruit. To avoid the mess, you can often find jackfruit conveniently cut up and packaged in plastic containers.
In the same family as lychee and rambutan (more on those below), longan is beige in color and the size of a large, round grape. Its translucent flesh has an earthy, honey-like flavor. Longans are green when they are unripe and they do not ripen after being picked, so look for longans that are tan in color with dry, almost bitter skin. Just use a small knife to cut an incision next to the stem to open the fruit, or if the skin is thin enough, you can simply use your nails and fingers to peel it open.
Thanks to the invention of lychee martini in the 1990s, the lychee is a tropical fruit that many Americans are familiar with — albeit the canned version. Today, fresh lychees are more widely available at select supermarkets. Fresh lychees are bright red and look like a bald, scaly version of rambutans, which are in the same botanical family (see below for more on rambutans). Lychees have pale, semi-translucent flesh; a crisp, juicy texture; and a citrusy, floral flavor. Be sure to pick ripe lychees, as they do not continue to ripen once picked. A ready-to-eat a lychee should have bright skin and a should be firm but not rock-hard to the touch — squishy lychees are overripe, while rock-hard ones are underripe. Lychees ferment easily, so it’s wise to eat them soon after you buy or pick them. Or, store them in the refrigerator for a day or two at the most.
According to lore, Queen Victoria was said to grant knighthood to anyone who could bring her a mangosteen from their travels to the tropics. This “queen of fruit” is a waxy baseball-size purple fruit with a green stem and sepals (four hard petal-like caps surrounding the stem).
Cut through the thick skin with a knife (or press it between your palms), and you’ll find snowy-white segments with a flavor that resembles a sweet white peach with a tangy kick. Ripe mangosteens have bright green stems and smooth rinds, feels heavy (compared with others in the batch), and aren’t too hard when you press gently with your thumb. Brown, droopy stems are indicators that the fruit is overripe.
A vitamin-packed fruit, papaya is one of the more popular tropical fruits in the U.S. The bright orange flesh has the creamy texture of an avocado, with the flavor of a floral, sweet melon. The black caviar-like seeds are also edible, with a crunchy and peppery bite. (Be aware that eating a large amount of papaya seeds can cause stomach upset).
A ripe papaya’s skin has turned from green to yellow and will yield to touch. It’ll also have a slighty sweet smell. If you selected an unripe papaya, you can speed up the process by putting it in a paper bag. See our step-by-step guide to cutting papaya.
Also known as lilikoi, passion fruit is a bright and juicy fruit that’s used in desserts and juices. The pulp is tart and citrusy, and the crunchy sees are edible. Skip the yellow, green, or red unripe passion fruit, and opt for the purple ones with wrinkly skin. Unripe, green passion fruit do not continue to ripen after they’ve been picked.
A favorite in Southeast Asia, rambutans resemble red eggs with wiry hairs. To eat a rambutan use a small knife, slice around the fruit’s circumference to reveal a juicy, pearl-like flesh that’s sweet, tangy, with a light floral scent. (If the skin is thin enough, you can simply peel them with your fingers.) Rambutans are usually sold in bunches still attached to the branches or loose and wrapped up in plastic bags. Rambutans do not ripen after picking, so select fruits that are bright red and avoid those with green skin (unripe) or with black hairs on the tip (overripe). Ripe rambutans and can stay fresh for a few days on the counter or nearly two weeks in the fridge.
A staple in Southeast Asia, starfruit is an antioxidant-rich star-shaped fruit that’s made up of 90 percent water. The entire fruit, including its waxy skin, is edible and tastes like a blend between a juicy, citrusy pear and a green grape.
A ripe starfruit is bright yellow, with slightly brown edges, and is firm to the touch. A green, unripe starfruit can be too sour, so leave it on your counter to ripen for a few days. To serve, simply wash the starfruit and cut it cross-wise into slices.