Updated: Dec 23, 2020
I think I’ve only ever met a few people who didn’t like fruit and I seem to recall them being pretty grumpy, not that I’m drawing any conclusions on there being a relationship between happiness and the consumption of fruit. I guess what I'm saying is that you don't need to be a foodie to appreciate exotic fruit!
We in North America are accustomed to some universal staple varieties of fruit such as apples, bananas or oranges… but what constitutes an exotic fruit to you? Pineapple? Guava? Is avocado a fruit!?!
Southeast Asia might be a little easier to discern as an exotic destination
When it comes to fruit, you’d be forgiven for thinking the food culture in Southeast Asia is a bit more intense than we’ve come to experience at home. There’s a type of fruit so foul smelling, it's banned from pretty much all hotels and public transport in Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore for example. Other varieties of fruit come with fun stories in the local culture or require a bit of unconventional preparation. They have fun names, too!
Here's my roundup of some of the interesting colors, shapes, tastes & textures you might encounter during a cruise or vacation to Southeast Asia. A range of experiences you may not fit in during one visit. You may also find a few I've missed on the list - please feel free to join the conversation in the comments or head to the Travel Forum to share your own fruit tale of SE Asia. Bonus points if it's a funny one!
Also called finger citrus or finger citron or some other combination of hands and citrus. I’m not sure you should actually eat this one. Maybe share a single piece among yourself and your travel companions to try a little bit but I feel like you’ll regret any attempt to eat the whole thing.
The fruit is basically a hand-shaped glob of citrus peel, there’s not much flesh or pulp to dig out and consume. You’ll likely find that the rind is exceptionally fragrant, however. There are apparently two varieties, the open hand and the closed hand. You can guess how crazy the fingers appear in the open hand!
I think people use this more for aromatic purposes, I imagine it would go down well in clearing one’s sinuses or if you could find an essential oil infused with the zest that it would really last. I believe they're only ripe when yellow, like a lemon.
A beautiful, delicious fruit but which isn't always an appetizing choice for the uninitiated. It's also sometimes called a wax berry.
These little berry-looking things are rather small, maybe the size of a raspberry, and look a little bit fuzzy because of their heavily textured surface. You can eat the whole thing, minus the little pit or seed in the center. It's often used in preserves or infused into beverages, likely because of the intense sweetness but I suspect also because it doesn't seem to keep well and must be consumed quickly.
They're sweet, really sweet. I first encountered these while I was living in Kunming, near-ish the Chinese border with Vietnam. They're seasonal and quite popular when they arrive. But it's their preparation which some find a bit unsettling. I like to think that this fruit is so delicious it attracts some unwanted hitchhikers...
If you're picking some up for yourself in a market, make sure you perform a fruit cleanse on the fruit itself. You'll need to add salt to water and submerge the fruit for a few minutes to get all the little worms and larvae out. In fact, two such rinses for good measure.
If you don't mind the process and can forget about the squirmy friends you almost made, I promise you won't regret the taste! It's certainly a memorable experience.
As I understand it, dragon fruit is actually from Central America and has become quite popular in East and Southeast Asia. As such, you might occasionally see it in the grocery store at home, or at least one of the two varieties. They both look like dragon’s eggs to me, bright red and often carrying a large, leafy frond of green growing off the sides. The easier to find of the two is the white dragon fruit, while arguably the tastier is the red.
The white tends to be a bit larger in size and maybe features a bit of a shine to the outer skin.
The red is, I think, a little harder to find both at home and on vacation. The red’s a little smaller than the white variety and tends to be more round in overall shape. The skin may be a little darker or a deeper red, too.
Inside, however, it is hard to confuse – it’s R.E.D. RED. OK, Maybe purple. I think it has a slightly sweeter taste but with a hint of something else to blunt the sweetness, I hesitate to use the word soap-like, but maybe that’s best. It’s delicious anyhow.
The red is a clothing killer.
Don’t let the juice get on your clothes, lest you stain them irreparably. At risk of sounding vulgar, you may also want to make a mental note of the days on which you ate the red one and remind yourself in the morning that everything will be OK. That deep red might have you thinking you should visit the emergency room when it makes its next appearance.
The King of Fruit. It’s a regal fruit to some, and a delicacy. To others, a smelly nuisance.
To start, they’re pretty large and uncomfortable looking for a fruit. Imagine a giant chestnut, that’s a good comparison. They’re woody and green with rather strong and surprisingly pointy spines all over. I often joke that they’re called the king of fruit because you could link one to the end of a chain to use as a weapon. Take down a whole army then crown yourself king (or queen)!
Pointy bits aside, once you’ve cracked the outer casing there are several segments or lobes of meaty flesh inside which are perhaps an acquired taste and often accompanied by a particularly pungent odor. Some people liken it to sewage. The smell also has a habit of hanging around and it can really carry.
They’re banned from most hotels and transportation options in a number of places around Southeast Asia, you might even see a picture showing the fruit with a big red line through it on your journeys. That’s because the lingering smell apparently gets into the materials and doesn’t really air out. I’ve heard that hotels have to throw out their mini-bars after a guest has managed to sneak one in.
I think they’re OK, I’ve had bad ones and good ones. In my mind, the experience is a fun one to try with family & friends. You’ve got to do it once, right? The bad ones are pretty intense though, making it extra fun for you to watch when someone else has a piece! The flesh of the fruit itself is pretty much a standard fruit consistency, but if you get a particularly ripe one the texture quickly becomes unwelcome in your mouth haha
If you're keen to try it but not feeling brave, you won't have trouble finding durian candies, dried durian or even durian ice cream during your trip. Try one of those at least!
It’s pretty popular throughout the region and has grown in popularity at home, you might have tried it either knowingly or unwittingly as a sort of meat substitute in your local hipster joint or on a vegetarian menu. It’s found in the import section of your local grocery store in cans with syrup or in semi-fresh packs in the produce section. It’s more of a dessert or sweet dish locally in Southeast Asia.
Think you can eat one? Bring friends. The fruit is huge, dwarfing even the durian. Although the two do look somewhat similar, especially the younger jackfruit. They’re both green and the jackfruit has raised knobs. Inside is far more pleasant, however. You’ll find what appears to be countless lobes of flesh which can typically be purchased by weight or without committing to purchasing an entire fruit – which can get over 100lbs and almost 3 feet long!
They’re also pretty common, you might see the fruit growing out the side of a tree when you’re walking around and doing some sightseeing. I can only assume that because of their individual size it takes a long time to ripen and that nothing wants to spend energy breaking through the tough exterior prematurely. Meaning the giant globes hang around for longer, giving you more opportunity to encounter one during your visit. Just watch your head if you hear the branches above give way.
I'm unsure how rare and exotic people are feeling about lychee these days.
You've likely seen lychee flavored syrups or liqueurs on the shelves of your local supermarket or in the neighborhood liquor store, alongside the actual fruit in cocktails or just in the produce section at some grocery stores. But, we’ll need to set things up for another next exotic fruit on this list, so I’ve included it anyhow.
Lychee is delicious and has a pleasant texture, it’s easy to carry and fun to eat. The only bad thing to happen to me while eating lychee is when my wife and I couldn’t agree if it’s pronounced ‘lee-chee’ or ‘lye-chee’.
This is probably my favorite fruit. As an adult I know this sounds a bit ridiculous to declare, but it’s true. I’ve not had one in years as they’re not something typically permitted for import to the US & Canada, but wow do they bring up some great memories.
Think of it like an orange, but the skin is made of wood and it’s a browny-purple in color. It almost looks like a toy and can vary in size from a bit larger than a golf ball to almost the size of a fist.
They’re ripe when the little leaves still attached start to look like they've turned to stone, at which point you can probably just tear the woody part open with your hands like you’re a skinny little bear coming out of hibernation. You’ll eat your second one this way after you taste the first anyhow. They're sort of sweet and sour at the same time, ultimately unique in flavor and truly delicious. Wash your hands soon after pulling one open, the purple stains.
The fruit inside really does resemble an orange or a full clove of garlic, with a few clearly defined segments, there may be a small and underdeveloped seed or pod within each lobe. I doubt you’ll have to watch your teeth on this pit and you may not even notice that you’ve eaten it, they can be so soft. More confusing, they’re not always present so you just never know.
You’ll not likely find these at home. The husk tends to host a species of fruit fly which is not welcome at home and which cannot be properly exterminated from the fruit itself. The stuff doesn’t transport well either, as I understand it. So, enjoy as much as you can when you’re on vacation.
Maybe it translates to “hairy lychee”? They’re like a super fun lychee at any rate, a bit more color as they come in greens and rich reds when ripe, but they also look hairy or furry. The edible part of the fruit is pretty much identical to a lychee and that makes it delicious – I just feel like they’re easier to open because you can simply pull the the hair without needing any purchase of a fingernail. That means less sticky finger mess when you’ve picked a really juicy batch.
Here’s tip for your trip to Southeast Asia | How rambutan can keep everyone smiling
If you’re out for the day and strolling a market or doing tourist things on your own or without a guide, pick up a big bag of rambutan for the day’s adventure. The fruit keeps well in the heat and each one is individually wrapped with its own biodegradable packaging. A delicious snack to keep you going and which is easy to open and which won’t get squished like a banana might. What’s more, I use them to get a smile out of touts who might otherwise wear down your happy day;
You just want to relax and enjoy the sights, explore at your own pace and maybe snap a few photos. You do want to engage with local people and learn about their country and their culture, but you don’t necessarily want every salesperson in Southeast Asia to proposition you for a tuk-tuk ride, to tell you about their great deal on tickets somewhere else because the temple is closed today, or to try and sell you a suit...
But as an ambassador of your own country and a guest in theirs, you feel obliged to remain polite no matter how persistent these new friends might be, and to respond to each plea for business with a “no thank you” or a "maybe later, I'll come back" and to smile and politely make small excuses as to why you can’t buy a suit or that you don’t need a ride or whatever other deflection you're employing.
We try to remain happy and positive, but after a long day of memory making it can be hard to balance being polite while navigating the volume of touts encountered. It’s hard to keep that smile on your face all the way through the day. That’s where the rambutan comes in!
Instead of making excuses or pandering my best and 1000th “no thank you” for the day, I just plain say “no, but do you want some rambutan instead?” And then hold my bag of fruit open or just thrust a few into their hands. No one has ever frowned or been rude or unwelcoming.
Who wouldn’t want a rambutan?
Respect the power of the rambutan.
Also called snakeskin fruit or just snake fruit, it’s originally an Indonesian fruit from a certain variety of palm tree but is grown more widely now in Malaysia and Thailand at least. The outer casing of the fruit really does look like snakeskin and even has a bit of a metallic sheen to it, sometimes it can be a little spiny or prickly.
The skin is thin and I don’t really remember having difficulty removing it, although similarly I don’t recall it coming off in one or two easy pieces like the husk of a mangosteen. Inside you’ll find two lobes, each containing a seed. If they’re actually ripe they’ll be juicy and an interesting flavor which seems like a combination of other, more familiar fruits. You may find a little added flavor is necessary where you've chosen an unripe batch.
I'll be honest, I'm not 100% positive this is a fruit. Called the date of India, it's originally from Africa - but it features in a variety of dishes across South and Southeast Asia, it also grows wild now near human habitation in Malaysia and south Thailand.
The interesting pods look a bit like giant peanuts, albeit a bit more smooth. Inside you'll find 2-5 small, hard, black seeds covered in a soft, sweet-sour flesh which indeed resembles that of a dried date. There's something akin to a root running the length and holding the whole thing together inside the pod.
The juice is a popular drink and if you encounter a tree in fruit (off of someone's property) you'll likely be able to simply pluck a couple at arm's reach. I'm led to believe it's among the ingredients in Worcestershire sauce!
I’ll be honest, I think this is the biggest disappointment on the list. I guess one of my fruit choices has to be the least favorite, right? I tried to alphabetize this list for easy reference, but it also meant finishing on a low... Can't win them all.
Wax apples look fun, exotic, and they have a fun name. They look sort of like a bell pepper met an apple, the experience is a little different. The fruit’s flesh itself doesn’t have much of a smell or flavor, it’s juicy but not very dense – maybe similar to a watermelon if you leave the slices out in the fridge for too long. You might find that they’re accompanied with some sort of added sugar or the fruit itself added to a dish for texture.
They’re pretty popular in people’s home garden and can deliver an enormous amount of fruit from a single tree. Apparently they’re considered a berry.
Navigating the Market
Most fruit vendors I've encountered in Southeast Asia have been forthcoming about their prices, typically a sign tells you the going rate per fruit or per unit.
You may also encounter a sole piece of opened fruit perched on top of a larger pile of ripe or nearly-ripe fruit of the same variety. Think of this as an example or showcase piece, indicating the quality of the remaining fruit offered.
Most vendors haven't sourced their stuff from overseas like you'll have experienced at home, that typically means no refrigeration and the vendors are actually fighting to sell their fruit ripe before it becomes too ripe and spoils, rather than selling picture-perfect yet prematurely picked pieces.
You won't have to take anything green home with you to stash in your hotel room for a few days while it ripens like a banana or tomato. Certainly don't try to take your fruit back to your cruise ship!
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