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.
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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.”
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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.”
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
A sure sign that you've landed somewhere new, exotic 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.
Check out the slideshow above for more exotic fruits bound to stimulate your senses.