Deliciously Strange Discoveries in Hawaii
Visiting any one of the Hawaii’s numerous fruit stands and farmers markets is a delightful treat for the senses. Bizarre and enticing fruit specimens of all shapes, colors, and sizes line tables and fill baskets, housing a selection so vast that choosing which tropical delight to try can be a little overwhelming. While the majority are transplants from other continents, the Island’s year-round mild tropical temperatures and mixed cultural inhabitants have allowed over a hundred different edible, and desirable, varieties of fruit to take root here.
Mangos, pineapples and papayas are easy picks, but with all that Hawaii offers it can be a lot of fun to step outside the norm. The next time you find yourself at a bustling farmers market or fruit stand, try one (or all) of these five exotic and often unheard of fruits, bound to intrigue your taste buds.
When scoping out the markets, keep in mind what your Mom has taught you at a young age and don’t judge a book, or fruit, by its cover. The scaly and unappealing green skin of the cherimoya can make it hard to justify buying, but looks can be deceiving. This South American native was heralded by Mark Twain as “the most delicious fruit known to men,” and was once reserved strictly for Incan royalty. Sweet, gooey, sherbet-like flesh earned it the common name “custard apple,” but the flavors are more reminiscent of a coconut-banana-mango combo meal than a Golden Delicious. Best chances for finding your own are at South Kona fruit stands from May to January. Ripe cherimoya are little squishy and have a slight golden brown tone to their green skin. The fruit will store for several days in the refrigerator, but avoid eating if they turn dark. When you are ready to enjoy, cut it open and feast on the fragrant white flesh with a spoon and experience why it’s also called the ice cream fruit.
The Kona coffee cherry may be Hawaii’s most famous, but keep a lookout for the Surinam cherry for a deliciously tart twist on the common mainland favorite. The large shrub is originally native to Suriname, Guyana, French Guiana, southern Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay, but excels here on the Island. The small fruits, high in antioxidants, are tangy and sweet, and leave a resinous flavor on your palate unlike any other cherry. Look for maroon to dark purple colored Surinam cherries for maximum sweetness and eat them immediately, as the soft delicate skin does not hold up over time. Pop the whole cherry into your mouth and spit out the seed. Year-round producers exist, but peak season runs from October through May. To enjoy a truly ripe Surinam, it’s best to pick them off the shrub, so ask a local and they might just know where to find one.
When the Polynesians first arrived on the Hawaiian Islands, pickings were slim when it came to fruits and vegetables. They came prepared with canoe plants (important cuttings and seeds from Polynesia) for initial crops, but the aina (land) did offer a few fruitful surprises. The ohelo berry is one of the few edible fruits native to Hawaii, and it was considered sacred to the ancients. The fruit-covered branches of the bush were commonly cast into Kïlauea as offerings to the volcano goddess, Pele.
Today this tart and delicious cranberry relative can be found in the wild at higher elevations, so try scoping out Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (HVNP) on the Big Island of Hawaii. Ripe ohelo berries vary anywhere from yellow to dark red, and are found from September through December. The fruits are a favorite of the protected Nene goose, so please refrain from picking inside HVNP.
The yellow pitaya is another fantastically weird-looking fruit definitely worth tasting. Commonly known as the dragon fruit, these scaly orbs grow from a cactus species found originally in South and Central America. There are many dragon fruit varieties, but the yellow pitaya is known as the sweetest of them all. The seedy white flesh inside tastes a little like a pear with a tropical twist. Find them at farmers markets and fruit stands between the months of May and December, and check fruit ripeness by feeling for spines on the ends of the strange knobs that cover the soft yellow skin. When the fruit is ripe, the spines fall off and it’s time to enjoy. Cut the fruit in half and scoop out the juicy insides with a spoon.
If you think you have seen it all in the fruit world, slice open a ripe eggfruit, or yellow sapote, and give it a taste. The deliciously rich filling has a consistency similar to the yolk of a hard-boiled egg. The fruit is native to southern Mexico, but is a fairly common find here on the Island from June to November. The oily and highly nutritious flesh offers a unique flavor somewhat like a cooked yam with a hint of maple syrup, but the skin and pit should be discarded. When the fruit is ripe, the yellow outside gives a little when you press on it. If it’s very soft, don’t bother tasting, as it’s passed its prime and will not be pleasant for snacking. Check the farmers markets and fruit stands and discover your own favorite tropical exotics.