You have to admire the first person who had the nerve to eat a rambutan. The small, round or oval fruit — which looks a lot like a sea urchin — is covered with soft, spiny protuberances often likened to hair. In fact, the name rambutan derives from the Malay word "rambut" meaning "hair."
Rambutans are about 1 to 2 inches (3 to 5 centimeters) in diameter. They start out green then ripen to red, orange or yellow, depending on the species. The rind is firm and leathery, and covered in soft spines called "spinterns."
A tropical fruit, the rambutan was native to Malaysia and Indonesia. It's believed that Arab traders probably discovered the fruit around the 13th to 15th centuries and took it to the islands off East Africa. Today, the fruit is cultivated throughout Southeast Asia, in Vietnam (where it's known as "chôm chôm" or "messy hair"), India, and it even made the trek to South and Central America, and several islands in the Caribbean. An attempt was made to introduce rambutan in the southeastern United States with seeds from Java but it was unsuccessful.
Rambutans grow on rambutan trees, which typically reach between 50 and 80 feet (15 and 25 meters) in height. The rambutan tree is evergreen and will usually produce fruit two times a year, depending on the location. In tropical areas, rambutan trees will fruit twice a year; those in Central America may only produce once a season. The trees are prolific producers, though, and will generate hundreds of rambutans with each crop. In 2020, the rambutan harvest was threatened in Guatemala when back-to-back hurricanes struck just as rambutan producers were harvesting and shipping the fruit.
Rambutans grow in clusters of 10 to 20 fruit. However, the fruits are delicate and are easily bruised. They must be carefully harvested by hand. Lacking good refrigeration, rambutans have a short shelf life. They typically need to get to market within three days of harvesting. So how can you tell whether you have a fresh rambutan?
Dissecting This Funky Fruit
We checked in by email with Norman Van Aken, a Miami, Florida-based restaurateur, chef, author and food guru to learn more about how this prickly produce could be used to its best advantage. To the question of freshness, Van Aken says, "Like most things in nature, rambutan glisten and have an alive look to them, moist...and the 'spines' are pliant."
When shopping for rambutans, use Van Aken's advice. Look for color and life, no bruising or blackened spines. They are best when eaten right away but they can be stored for up to five days in your refrigerator's crisper drawer.
But what do these funky fruits taste like?
"The flavor is like an exotic grape, but much more perfumed," Van Aken says. "To eat them, take your fingernail or a paring knife and peel back the thin exterior (beneath the spines). Pull that back and the grape-like looking fruit is revealed. Take care to get rid of any of that 'bark' as it is bitter."
Rambutans have a center pit, like a cherry. Cut them carefully and discard the pit — it's inedible. Rambutans make tasty additions to salads, smoothies and desserts. They can also be used in drinks, mocktails and cocktails, or as an ingredient in dessert syrups. Van Aken uses rambutans or their cousins, peeled longans or lychees, to garnish a tropical fruit chutney that includes mango, pineapple and papaya (see recipe below).
Rambutans are usually found in Asian markets but thanks to increased interest in this unusual fruit in the U.S., Europe and Canada, you can often find them in the produce section of specialty grocery stores, larger grocery chains and farmer's markets.
The Health Benefits
For such a tiny fruit, rambutans pack a nutritious punch and are considered a superfood, packed with cancer-fighting antioxidants. They're an excellent source of vitamins A, C and B-5 — a B vitamin that helps your body convert food into energy. They also provide folate (especially important for healthy cell growth) and potassium, a mineral that assists with kidney function.
Rambutans can be a good source of copper and iron, both minerals that work together to keep the blood healthy. Rambutans are also low in calories and in carbohydrates, so they're good for snacking. They are also a great source of soluble and insoluble fiber, which helps lower your cholesterol and provide the type of bulk necessary for good digestive and colon health. In other words, your heart and your gastrointestinal tract will thank you.
Tropical Fruit Chutney With Rambutan
1/2 cup sugar
1 small red onion, medium dice
1 mango, peeled and medium dice
1/2 pineapple, medium dice
1 tbsp. Chinese 5 spice powder
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp. peeled and chopped ginger
1 star anise pod
2 cups papaya, cleaned and medium dice
Peeled and pitted rambutan and lychee
Mix first 6 ingredients (through salt and pepper) together in a large bowl and set aside.
Add vinegar, ginger and star anise in heavy saucepan and reduce mixture on low to 3/4 cup.
Remove from heat and strain off the star anise and ginger. Discard star anise and ginger.
Add reserved fruit mixture to reduced syrup mixture in heavy saucepan.
Cook on medium heat about 30 minutes or until the fruit is soft but not mushy, stirring occasionally. If the fruit gives off too much juice, strain off the fruit, set it aside and continue to reduce the syrup. Return the fruit to the syrup and continue to heat.
Remove mixture from heat and add papaya. Mix.
Reserve until ready to serve.
Garnish with peeled pitted rambutans and lychees.
Keep refrigerated for up to 1 month. Yield: 1 quart
Nearly every part of the rambutan has been used medicinally in Malaysia. The fruit has been used as everything from an astringent to an antiparasitic. The dried fruit rind is ground up and sold in local drugstores as a cure-all and the leaves ground up and used as a headache poultice.
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