The winter months, when the more familiar-looking fruits are out of season, are the perfect time to look south, to explore those odd-looking tropical fruits you’ve wondered about whenever you’ve spied them on the exotic fruit shelf at the supermarket.
Though scaly cherimoyas, spiky horned melons, and wrinkly passionfruit look a little mysterious compared with temperate-zone produce, the fruit that’s hidden inside the unfamiliar peels offers bright, luscious flavor. Eaten plain or added to sauces, salsas, or salads, tropicals add zip, and they’re a welcome segue into spring.
To get the best taste and texture out of tropical fruits, ripen them at room temperature. When eaten out of hand, however, tropical fruits taste best slightly chilled, so stow them in the refrigerator for a half an hour or so before enjoying them.
Carambolas (or star fruit) are ripe and ready to eat when their ridges begin to darken (the ones pictured above aren’t quite ripe…). The flavor is a subtle blend of apples and grapes, with a light, citrusy tang. Carambola peel is edible, so you don’t need to remove it, but if you’re a stickler for presentation, use a sharp paring knife or peeler to pare away the dark parts. Toss thin slices into fruit salad to add whimsy and variety. Try setting a slice into the center of a pancake as it cooks in the skillet; kids love the surprising shape.
Passionfruit’s black, wrinkly skin is an indication of ripeness—the more dimply, the better the flavor. Passionfruit is quite juicy; when you cut into one, be ready to catch every drop. Rather than a fruit you’d eat out of hand, passionfruit has tasty pulp and juices; these are what you’re really after. Force the juicy pulp through a strainer to separate it from the seeds. Whisk passionfruit juice with honey, canola oil, sesame oil, black pepper, and shallots for a delicious dressing for grilled chicken. Passionfruit livens up fruit salads, and its edible seeds are peppery and crunchy.
Papayas have smooth green or greenish-yellow skin. A mottled, spotty look is okay, as long as the papaya feels heavy for its size. A ripe papaya should give when pressed; it should feel a little softer than a mango. The flesh of papayas ranges from yellow-orange to salmon-toned, and it tastes peachy-apricotty, with a musky note. Hollow out the dark seeds, peel the skin, and enjoy papayas in the same way you would mangos. Purée papaya and whisk in a little Champagne vinegar for a light, zippy sauce for grilled fish.
Mangos come in many varieties whose colors include yellow, red, green, and even purple. A mango is ripe and ready to eat when it’s fragrant, is plump around the stem area, and gives slightly when pressed. The juicy, taxi-colored flesh has a tangy and exotic flavor—I think it’s just about the most luscious fruit there is. Mangos are great peeled, diced, and eaten plain, and they’re delicious in blender drinks, fruit salads, purées, and salsas. Add small chunks of mango to a butter sauce to serve with fish.
Cherimoyas (or custard apples) are ready to eat when they’re so soft that you could almost poke a hole through the (inedible) peel. Cherimoya flesh is creamy-textured (hence its alias, custard apple), with a pineappley-banana-strawberry taste. Eaten plain and simple, a cherimoya makes a deliciously unusual dessert or snack, so enjoy one as you would a slice of melon: chill briefly, quarter with a knife, and scoop out the flesh with a spoon to work around the large, dark, inedible seeds.
A guava’s ripeness is best judged by the strength of its sweet, aromatic perfume, rather than by feel. The small seeds are edible, as is the skin, which can be green, white, or even pink—there are many varieties. The flavor of a guava can vary from banana-like to more pineapple-y. Guava nectar and guava jelly are classic condiments in savory Caribbean cooking; cooked guavas make a delicious base for a ham glaze. Or try fresh, ripe guava sliced with farmer’s cheese for a delicious tropical-style breakfast or mid-afternoon snack.
Horned melon tastes more like a vegetable than a fruit. It’s at peak ripeness when it turns golden-orange and feels about as firm as a cucumber. The flesh tastes like cucumber, too—with a tangy-sweet note—so try using it in the same way. Make a chilled soup with the edible seeds and pulp, and use the hollowed-out melon as your soup bowl. Try substituting horned melon for cucumber in raita, the classic Indian yogurt dip. Toss the seeds and pulp into fruit salad for visual and textural interest and for a refreshing, tart note.