Lemon, Citrus limon, a most valued resource for culinary and medicinal purposes, is used in most parts of the world. Its origins are a mystery, but it is widely assumed that it originated in India, Northern Burma and China. It next traveled to Persia, Iraq and Egypt, and then around the Mediterranean. In Europe, lemon first arrived in ancient Rome. It was brought to Hispanola in the Americas in 1493, via Christopher Columbus. Lemons were planted in Florida and California in the 1700 and 1800s, where they were used for cooking and as a flavor. It is a tropical, sub-tropical and Mediterranean shrub, though some varieties grow as tall as trees.
Over 600 fruits originated in the tropics, yet only five percent are sold commercially. Learn about the uniqueness of some of the ones you rarely see in the market.
Durian, known in Southeast Asia as the King of Fruits, is a fascinating member of the genus Durio and the Malvaceae family. It has the distinction of being a fruit that people either passionately love or passionately hate, due to its unique strong aroma and flavor. It is native to Malayasia, Brunei and Indonesia. Although it has been eaten since prehistoric times, it has only been known in the West for about six hundred years.
Dragon Fruit, also known as Pitaya, is the fruit from a variety of cactus species, primarily from the genus Hylocereus. They are similar to the prickly pear cactus fruits, often called “tunas.” Native to Mexico, Central and South America, they are now cultivated extensively in Asia, primarily in Vietnam, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. They are also grown in Hawaii, Israel, Okinawa, Southern China and Northern Australia. The Hylocereus genus produces beautiful, fragrant white flowers, often called Queen of the Night or Moon Flower, because they bloom at night.
Carambola, also known as Star fruit, is the fruit of the Averrhoa carambola tree. It is native to Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka, and is very popular throughout Southeast Asia, Malaysia and parts of East Asia. It is also grown in Hawaii, Brazil, Florida and the Caribbean. Malaysia is the largest exporter of carambola, providing Europe and Asia with the fruit.
Dates come from the Date Palm, Phoenix dactylifera, a mid-size palm that frequently has more than one trunk growing from the same rootstock. Because it has been cultivated for its fruit for so long, its precise origin is uncertain, but is probably native to North Africa and possibly Southeast Asia. Date palms have been cultivated for thousands of years in the Middle East and there is evidence of cultivation as early as 6000 BC in Eastern Arabia. They were introduced to Mexico and California in the late 1700s and are grown commercially in the Southern California desert.
Chile Pepper, Capiscum, is also known also as chilli pepper, chilli, chili. For the purposes of this compendium, I have used the original “chile” as it is known in Latin America. Botanically, it is considered a berry bush. Because chiles are savory, we think of them as a vegetable but their culinary use is frequently as a spicy flavoring. Chile peppers are a fruit of the Americas; they are now grown around the world and are used everywhere as a spice and/or a vegetable in cuisine. They are also used as medicine.
Archeological evidence shows that chile was cultivated as early as 6000 years ago and is one of the first domesticated crops that is self-pollinating. Christopher Columbus discovered chile when he arrived in the Americas and named them “peppers” for the spicy flavor, which reminded him of black pepper, though botanically the two are not related.
Breadfruit, Artocarpus altilis, is a species of flowering trees related to the mulberry, and came originally from the Malay Peninsula and possibly Polynesia. The trees grow to around 66 feet in height, and can grow in salty and sandy soil. The tree produces latex (rubber), which is used for caulking boats. The flowers are pollinated by bats. Breadfruit is one of the higher producing food plants, with up to 200 fruits per year. The fruit is usually the size of a large grapefruit, although sometimes larger. I prepared breadfruit in Tahiti and they were more the size of pomelos. Breadfruit is a close relative of the breadnut and jackfruit.
The Polynesians brought breadfruit plant stock with them in their dugouts as they traveled the Pacific. The wood is lightweight and impervious to termites and therefore useful for building dugouts. Lieutenant Bligh collected breadfruit as one of his HMS Bounty botanical samples and saw it as a potentially cheap source of food for slaves in the Caribbean.
Ackee or Akee, Blighia sapida, is native to tropical West Africa. It is related to the lychee and longon, although it doesn’t look anything like them. It is a tall evergreen tree that produces a pear-shaped fruit that goes from green to bright red to yellow-orange as it ripens. Captain Bligh took ackee from Jamaica to England in 1793. In the 1770s, it was taken, most likely on slave ships, from West Africa to Jamaica, where it is now the national fruit; ackee and salt fish is the national dish.
Cupuacu, Theobroma Grandiflorum, is a close relative to cacao (chocolate). It grows on trees that can reach up to 45 feet or more in the rainforest canopy, and has been a food of the indigenous and village Amazonian peoples and animals for many centuries. Cupuacu has a creamy white pulp, which is often used in ice creams, juices and desserts, and is considered such a culinary delicacy that demand outstrips supply. It is very much in demand in Brazil. It is rarely, if ever, seen in the United States or Europe.
The seeds have been processed similarly to cacao seeds for their fat and flavor. Currently there is dispute with the Japanese over the use of the seeds as they have patented their cupacu products and undercut the indigenous people who grow, harvest and sell cupuacu for a living.
Coconut, Cocos nucifera, is a member of the palm family, which thrives nearly worldwide in lowland, moist, tropical and sub-tropical climates. Botanically, coconuts are a drupe (fleshy fruit with a single seed), and the “nut” that we purchase in the store is the seed. Its origin is uncertain, as the heavy outer husk of the coconut is impervious to salt water intrusion and coconuts can float for up to eight months in saltwater and still remain viable! Theories on their origins range from the Indo-Malaysian region to Africa to Polynesia and even the Americas. Wherever they originated, they are popular for their uses in beverages and food, for their high-quality oil, as a fermented alcoholic beverage, for their use in making rope and other building materials, as well as for use in crafts.
Chayote, Sechium edule, is a member of the gourd family, along with cucumbers, melons and squash. It is a trailing vine that produces large leaves that act as a canopy to protect the fruit. A native of the Americas, the majority of chayotes sold for export come from the Veracruz region of Mexico. It is often considered a vegetable, as it is not sweet. The leaves, roots, stems and seeds are all edible.
It is a major player in the diets of people in the Americas and has become more popular in the US in recent years. It has an edible, thin green skin and slightly prickly hairs. The flesh is creamy yellowish-white with one large seed in the center. It is most flavorful if it has sprouted, and the smaller fruits are the most tender. The flavor is simple and bland and is very good served raw in salads, or steamed, fried, mashed, stuffed, pickled or used in soups and stews.
The Banana, Musa acuminata, originated in the Indo-Malaysian tropical jungles and early wild varieties were found as far south as northern Australia. It is an herbaceous plant that can grow to 25 feet or taller and looks like a tree. In fact, it’s the tallest herb in the world, a member of the orchid family and may be the world’s first fruit. Alexander the Great discovered bananas in India and brought them to the Western world. Arabic slave traders brought the banana to Madagascar where it traveled via migrants and traders to other parts of Africa. In Guinea it was called banema; the Arabs called it banan for “finger,” as the early bananas were extremely small.
Cherimoya, Annona cherimola, is a delicious tropical fruit. Originally from Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, the cherimoya is a large, green, slightly heart-shaped fruit from a tree that grows to 35 feet in height. It grows from seeds, which are disbursed in the fruits and grows well in both tropical and sub-tropical environments.
Avocado, Persea Americana, is native to Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. “Avocado” so-named for its shape, comes from the Nahuatl word “ahuacatl” which means testicle. It is pear or egg-shaped, with a thin green skin, green creamy flesh that becomes more yellow closer to the seed, and contains one large seed. Technically it is a large berry, but because it isn’t sweet it is often considered a vegetable.
Amazon tree grape, Pourouma cecropiaefolia, is indigenous to the Amazon rainforests of Western Brazil and adjacent areas of Peru and Ecuador, and has been cultivated in this region as well as tropical Bolivia and Colombia for centuries. It has numerous names in Portuguese and Spanish but is often known as cucura.
The trees grow from 23 to 50 feet in height. The leaves are dark olive green and have a scent similar to wintergreen when crushed. The trees grow on high, dry land, but tolerate periodic flooding. However, they cannot tolerate prolonged drought. The wood is coarse and soft and is frequently made into charcoal.
Acerola fruit or Acerola cherry is variously known as the Barbados Cherry, West Indian Cherry, Cereza, Cerisier and Semeruco. It is believed to have originated along the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and grows throughout South Texas, Mexico, Central America, Northern South America and the Caribbean. It has been successfully introduced into Southeast Asia, India and South America. Brazil is the largest commercial producer of acerola cherries.
The Abiu is a member of the Sapotaceae family that originated along the Amazon of South America. The tree averages 33 feet but can grow as tall as 115 feet. Each tree produces up to a thousand fruits annually. The abiu is known as the yellow star apple in Engish. (It is not related to the star fruit.) However it has numerous names in Spanish and Portuguese: caimito amarillo, camio, luma, temare, madura verde, avio and abieiro.
When ripe, the abiu has smooth bright yellow skin and contains one to four oval seeds. The inside of the fruit is translucent white and has a creamy, jelly-like texture, with a caramel-sweet flavor.
The abiu is usually eaten fresh or made into ice cream. Its subtle flavor can easily be overwhelmed by other fruits or ingredients, so its best served plain, or in yogurt or ice cream. It has a sticky, latex-like residue (the sapote family is related to chicle from which we get chewing gum). The wood of the abiu tree is dense, heavy and hard.
In its native habitats the pulp is used to relieve coughs, bronchitis and other lung complaints. It is considered a good anti-inflammatory and can help stop fever and diarrhea.