6 Exotic Fruits You Must Try When Visiting Asia
Among the pleasures of travel is trying new things. Whether it be learning a few words of a new language, spending a night in a rainforest, crossing a busy river in a bobbing water taxi or exploring centuries-old temples, Asia has lots of memorable new experiences to offer.
Then there are Asia’s tropical fruit. Some will be familiar to everyone and need no introduction: coconuts, bananas, pineapples, mangoes and papayas among them. But many travellers will be seeing several other fruits for the first time. And the opportunity to taste some of them is too good to pass up.
Not all the fruits you’ll see for sale in markets are native to Asia. Pineapples and papayas come originally from South America, for instance, and dragon fruits from Central America.
Of the native Asian fruits, not all, we have to say, will be to every visitor’s taste. The famously pungent smell of durians (like rotting flesh or dirty socks, some say) can be off-putting, and some visitors find them difficult to eat. And starfruits can be tart, a bit like eating lemons or limes, especially when not fully ripe.
However, some indigenous Asian fruits are genuinely delicious. Travellers shouldn’t hold back.
A good rule of thumb is to buy them in markets rather than supermarkets. Not only will they be less expensive, but you can ask for help from the vendors to select ones that are ready for eating. Fruits sold in supermarkets are picked under-ripe and are generally not as tasty.
And go for fresh rather than canned fruits, which usually come with added sugar.
Here are six Asian fruits that we think most travellers will enjoy.
The jackfruit won’t win any beauty contest among fruits. It’s big and bumpy, and its sheer size make it look a bit fearsome. But it’s tasty, so don’t be put off. If you visit Asia early in the second half of the year, you’ll be fortunate enough to enjoy the annual jackfruit season.
The jackfruit is believed to have originated in southern India and possibly the rainforests of Borneo. It’s grown across tropical Asia, especially Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. It matures each July-August, which coincides with the monsoon rains in India.
It’s the world’s largest fruit that grows on a tree. It can reach more than a metre in length and weigh more than 35 kg.
In Asian markets, a jackfruit is generally sliced up and sold fresh in a bag of several pieces with the skin removed, ready to eat.
And the taste? A ripe jackfruit has a pleasantly firm texture and a satisfying, sweet flavour. If you like mangoes or pineapples, chances are you’ll like jackfruits too.
If you choose, you can also eat it unripe, cooked in curries and other spicy dishes, often as a meat substitute. People prepare it like this throughout Asia. It’s popular in salads and desserts too.
Some consider the lychee the tastiest of all Asia’s native tropical fruits. It’s sweet, smooth and delicious.
A small, round fruit with a hard, pinkish-brown shell, it’s native to south-eastern China. Today it’s also widely grown in Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. It grows in spectacular clusters on the tree.
The shell is easy to peel with your fingers, exposing firm, white flesh covering a large seed. It’s best eaten by hand, nibbling the flesh from the seed. Don’t eat the seed itself, though.
It’s hard to compare the taste of lychee to that of any other fruit. A touch of grape. Possibly a trace of pear. A hint of citrus, perhaps. Some say a dash of strawberry. But these don’t really describe it. It has a taste all its own.
Aside from eating lychees on their own, you can add them, without the seed, to salads, fruit salads, spicy dishes or desserts. Think ice cream and lychees on a hot, tropical day. Fresh lychee juice is wonderful too. And lychee cocktails are becoming popular.
Wondering how to pronounce its name? You may hear it pronounced either lai-chee or lee-chee. Lai-chee is more common in Southeast Asia but both pronunciations are acceptable in English. You can use whichever you prefer.
The rambutan is an intriguing looking fruit. The size of a plum and red (or sometimes yellow) when ripe, it’s covered in long, soft, hair-like spines. Indeed, its name is derived from ‘rambut’, the Malay word for hair. The taste is sweet and delicious.
The rambutan is native to Malaysia and is one of the most popular fruits in Southeast Asia, widely available in markets or at roadside stalls. Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia are the three main producers.
Despite the hairs, the skin is easily removed. Cut it around the middle with a knife or simply break it with your thumbs. Give it a little squeeze and the fruit will pop out, ready to eat: white-coloured flesh surrounding a large seed.
Hold it in your hand and eat the flesh off the seed. It has a firm jelly-like texture and in most cases it readily comes away from the seed. Sometimes, though, it sticks more strongly to the seed and you’ll have to nibble away more carefully. Either way, visitors tasting it for the first time are not likely to be disappointed.
The two main rambutan seasons in Southeast Asia are from March to July and again from June and November, so they’re available for most of the year.
Like their close relative, the lychee, rambutans are delicious in salads and desserts.
The mangosteen is one of the least known of Asia’s native tropical fruits. It’s a shiny, purple fruit about the size of a large plum, with a pleasant, healthy taste.
It’s native to parts of Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and Malaysia, and perhaps also the Philippines, Singapore and Brunei. It’s now grown in other parts of the world too but needs a consistently hot, tropical climate to thrive. And it’s no relation to the mango, despite the similar name.
The easiest way to eat it is to cut the rind around the middle with a knife, and then simply use your fingers to peel away the inedible outer rind from the juicy flesh inside. But be aware that the skin can be very tough, so be careful not to let the knife slip.
The flesh is divided into segments; the larger segments contain a seed but the smaller ones don’t. Don’t eat the seeds. If the flesh is white and firm, you’ll know it’s ripe and good to eat.
The mangosteen is sweet with a touch of sourness. If you like green grapes, you’ll probably like mangosteens too. And you might just taste a bit of peach or orange in there too.
Mangosteens are delicious to eat fresh on their own. But they can also be added to a salad or dessert.
The pomelo (sometimes spelled as pummelo) is the only citrus fruit on our list. It’s native to Southeast Asia and looks like a big, yellow or light green grapefruit. It’s the world’s largest citrus.
To eat it, you remove the thick skin, as you would an orange skin, and peel away the thin membrane from around each segment. The segments can be yellow or pink. Then just break off small pieces and pop them into your mouth, or eat them with a spoon, whichever you prefer. The membrane itself is bitter, so don’t eat it.
A pomelo tastes a bit like a grapefruit but with little of the tartness. It’s not particularly sweet or bitter, just mild and tasty. It makes a delicious snack. And it’s less juicy than a grapefruit, so you won’t make a sticky mess if you eat it with your fingers.
You probably won’t be able to eat an entire pomelo in one go but if you store it in a fridge it should last several days.
Pomelos are particularly popular in Southeast Asia, where they are eaten at many festive celebrations. They feature in Malaysian, Philippine, Chinese, Cambodian, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, among others. They are often used in desserts and salads.
Originally from Malaysia, the langsat is a small, round, brownish-yellow fruit that grows on trees in many parts of Asia, especially Southeast Asia and southern India. It grows in large clusters and that’s how you’ll see it for sale in markets and supermarkets.
Langsats come in various varieties and are called by several names. In English the best-known are langsat and lanzones (the name they go by in the Philippines) but they are also called duku, dukung or dokong in Malaysia, and longkong in Thailand.
They taste a bit like green grapes, with perhaps a trace of grapefruit thrown in – sweet with a touch of sourness.
The easiest way to eat a langsat is to hold it in your fingers and bite into the skin, then peel it off. It comes away from the fruit easily. Inside are between four and six segments of light-coloured flesh. Some contain seeds, others don’t. Hold the peeled langsat and bite off the segments one at a time. But avoid the seeds, which can be bitter.
Although it’s not a particularly moist or juicy fruit, it does leave a sticky residue on your fingers. It will spoil after a few days at room temperature but can be kept for longer in a fridge.
Header image: © Alan Williams