World's Weirdest Exotic Fruits
“I ate a whole lemon, raw, and it was delicious,” says Katie O’Neill, a Philadelphia-based medical student. No, she wasn’t on drugs, but her perception was chemically altered: after eating miracle fruit, nearly everything tastes (temporarily) sweet. The experience is so psychedelic that many have dubbed it “flavor tripping.”
Miracle berries, native to West Africa, are a trendy example of the weird world of exotic fruits. A sure sign that you’ve landed somewhere new, such fruits intrigue and challenge us, whether by their unfamiliar size, shape, texture, or smell. The stinky durian fruit, for instance, has become infamous among travelers to China and Southeast Asia.
“I was thrown off a bus once because I had one in my bag,” says travel writer Mikaya Heart. But she’s quick to add that durian is one of her favorite tastes: “It is very succulent and oily, the consistency and color of really thick custard. I would eat it every day if I could.” With a little effort, you can find durian and other exotic fruits without flying halfway across the world; start your search at specialty grocery stores or ethnic restaurants.
Such crazy, beautiful, and above all, natural fruits are a vivid reminder of the planet’s incredible, if precarious, biodiversity. As many farmers mass cultivate the same breeds of common fruit over and over again, other versions may die out to make room for bestsellers like Golden Delicious. At the same time, fruits once considered exotic (like mango or, recently, acai) can find their way into the American mainstream, which makes encountering an unfamiliar fruit that much more of a tantalizing novelty.
Case in point: David Slenk lived with a Peruvian family in Lima during a yearlong trip through South America. At dessert time, they served him a weird fruit: “bright white and kind of mushy, chopped up and covered in orange juice,” he recalls. “I’d never seen anything like it before. I took a cautious bite, couldn’t believe my taste buds, then finished the entire bowl in seconds.”
That’s how Slenk discovered that he loves cherimoya, a green fruit with a fleshy white inside and black seeds. “It’s almost enough to make me move to Peru forever.”
Keep reading for more exotic fruits bound to stimulate your senses.
This brilliantly purple fruit thrives in northern Japan, in the Tohoku area, but only briefly, making an appearance for about two weeks in early autumn. It grows on a wild vine and, for many Japanese people, is a symbol of the changing seasons. When the fruit is ripe and ready to eat, it pops open on one end. The gooey pulp inside is slightly sweet, while the rind is slightly bitter and is usually used as a vegetable. Do as locals do, and slurp up the flesh along with the seeds.
Native to southeastern Brazil, this strange bowling ball–esque fruit grows right off the main tree trunk. The deep-purple fruits have a white pulp inside that can be eaten raw or used in jellies. “Jaboticaba was very fun to eat,” recalls Tyler Burton, who lived in Brazil for two years. “You gently bite into them and the juice squirts out into your mouth, and you spit the seed and skin out.”
What’s green and scaly all over? Cherimoya fruit, although the inside is white and creamy, with many dark brown seeds. It’s currently grown throughout South and Central America and South Asia (the name originally comes from the Quechua word chirimuya). Mark Twain called it the “most delicious fruit known to men,” and generations later, that reputation is holding up. Dan Clarke, who works for Real Peru Holidays, a company that specializes in vacations to Peru, says, “The usual English translation for it is ‘custard apple,’ which sounds tasty enough, but doesn’t come close to capturing the creamy sweetness.”
Found in the tropical rainforests of Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, and northern Brazil, these Amazonian fruits are oblong and fuzzy. Their outer shells are very hard and thick, and one fruit generally weighs two to four pounds. The pulp inside smells like a mix of chocolate and pineapple—only logical once you know this fruit is related to cacao. In fact, its pulp is similar enough to cocoa butter that it’s sometimes used in cosmetics. Meanwhile, the juice has been said to taste like a pear, with a hint of banana. Like the superfruit acai, cupuaçu has so many great phytochemicals and nutrients that it is sometimes used in food supplements.
Also known as Buddha’s hand, this fruit has long yellow growths that really do resemble fingers. It’s used, appropriately enough, for religious offerings in Buddhist temples, mainly in China and Japan. Fingered citron is also a chef’s favorite. At Portland’s Pazzo Ristorante, chef John Eisenhart makes marmalade from it in the winter. Pastry chef Megan Romano of Chocolate & Spice Bakery, in Las Vegas, slices it paper-thin and poaches it in simple syrup to use as a chip to garnish ice cream or sorbet. And Vera Dordick, a trained pastry chef and former culinary instructor, particularly likes infusing the fruit in vodka: “so much more fragrant and flavorful than regular lemons,” she says.
Related to the lychee and a native of tropical West Africa, ackee was imported to Jamaica in the 1700s and made a big impression; ackee and saltfish is Jamaica’s national dish. Ackee pods ripen on the tree before picking, and to cook the fruit, people remove the soft, spongy white-yellow flesh before boiling it. The oils contain many important nutrients like fatty acids, although the unripened parts of the fruit have been known to cause food poisoning. Canned ackee has been restricted in the U.S. at various times for safety reasons, but it currently has the FDA’s seal of approval.
This fruit is also known as urucu, its Tupi Indian name, and can be found in the tropical parts of the Americas as well as Southeast Asia. The fruit is red and spiny—brown after it hardens—and contains bright red seeds. Unlike the other fruit included in this list, achiote’s fruit is inedible, so we can’t speak to its flavor. Instead, its bright red seeds come in handy in annatto coloring, which you may have seen on packages for everything from lipstick to cheddar cheese. In addition to being used for food coloring, achiote seeds can also be used to create a flavor and scent, like a peppery nutmeg.
A relative of the mulberry, jackfruit is native to South and Southeast Asia, and may have originated in the rainforests of India. Its most immediate and striking feature is its size. One fruit is at least as big as a watermelon, and it can reach 80 pounds. The outside of a jackfruit smells like a melon, and the inside has a sweet, tangy odor—smelling almost like gummy bears. The inside is divided into segments surrounding large seeds, and you can eat the orange flesh surrounding these pods. The fruit itself tastes sweet, similar to a melon or a tangy banana, and has an aftertaste similar to a lychee.
Fruit doesn’t get stranger than these West African berries, which contain the molecule miraculin and make everything taste sweet. You’ll notice the impact most with sour foods—raw lemons suddenly taste like lemon-drop candies—and the effect lasts about 30 to 90 minutes. The berries themselves are not very fleshy or tasty in their own right. Eating the berry involves scraping the flesh off around a seed in the middle, then swirling the pulp around in your mouth for about a minute so the miraculin has a chance to bind onto your taste buds. If you decide to arrange a “flavor tripping” party, experiment to see how a range of flavors taste under the influence—say, pickles, mustard, citrus fruits, cheeses, even a Guinness beer.
This fruit is native to Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. It’s related to the lychee and called chom chom in Vietnam, which means “messy hair.” Although the outside of the fruit looks exotic and strange, with the fiery red hair spiking out in all directions, the inside of the fruit is very similar to a lychee. Inside the hard red shell is an opaque fruit surrounding a pit in the middle, with nearly the same texture and taste as a lychee, though a bit less sweet.
This fruit is part of both the cucumber and the melon families. While native to Africa, the horned melon is now grown in California, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand and nicknamed blowfish in the southeastern U.S. The fruit immediately stands out for the horns on its orange exterior; the inside is equally strange—green, with white seeds. It tastes a lot like a cucumber—crossed with a zucchini—and while some people eat the seeds and the skin, it’s more common to eat just the pulp and spit out the seeds.
Here’s one fruit you don’t want to bite into: the purple outside is hard and feels like a wooden shell. You crack it open by pulling off one end and breaking the shell to reveal pearlescent white pods inside. Some of the pods may have seeds in the middle, and the texture of those white segments is soft, with a translucent jelly toward the center of the fruit. Your reward is a complex sweet and tangy treat.
A member of the nightshade family of plants, physalis resembles a tomato in many ways: size, structure, shape. The strange differentiating factor is that physalis is found inside papery husks that look like tissue paper or dried leaves. As for taste, physalis fruit are generally mild with summery acidity, not unlike a strawberry or a cross between a tomato and a pineapple. Physalis is easy to grow—thriving even in poor soil or a pot—and a commercially cultivated version is the tomatillo, generally small, green, and encased by a thin papery husk.
This small fruit, native to China and Southeast Asian countries, has a thorn-covered husk and an outsize reputation for its odor. Tracey Manner, who tried it in Malaysia, says: “Your breath smells for hours after, like you ate gym socks.” Some places have outlawed the fruit on public transportation, and many hotels forbid anyone to enter with one. Mikaya Heart, a travel writer, was once kicked off a bus for carrying one in her bag. But durian is one of her favorite tastes: “It is very succulent and oily, the consistency and color of really thick custard.” Tom Sheehan, who specializes in bike tours of Southeast Asia, recommends durian ice cream and chips because they “have the flavor but none of the odor. The chips are a slightly sweeter version of a potato chip and a bit harder.”