WHAT excites me most about our local foods is seeing the introduction of new, or almost forgotten, exotic produce. We all know and love the perennial favourites of watermelon, pineapple, soursop and red papaya, but as the Fijian palate becomes more sophisticated, the appearance of rare fruits from faraway lands is something I look forward to each season.
Our pristine air, volcanic soil and mineral-rich water provide the right conditions to grow a host of weird and wonderful fruits from South East Asia and South America. Three fruits that are rarely seen in our resorts or on the kitchen table are both scaly and prehistoric in appearance, yet offer enormous health benefits are what can be called the dragon-like fruits.
Mother nature has a strange sense of humour when she packages her most medicinal, and sometimes aphrodisiac foods in armour-looking shells.
Enter the dragonfruits — pitaya, custard apples and durian. All are now being grown in Fiji but you have to be fast to the markets to secure some.
Pitaya — Dragonfruit
Dragon fruit is a tropical fruit that has become increasingly popular in recent years because of its exotic looks and medicinal properties. And whether it’s the purple, white or yellow dragonfruit, they just look spectacular on the plate.
It goes by many names including pitaya, strawberry pear and Honolulu queen. The plant is native to southern Mexico and Central America. The two most common types have bright, red skin with green scales that resemble a dragon — hence the name, but in Fiji we also get the yellow dragonfruit which has sharp needles across its skin to protect itself from being eaten by birds and animals.
The variety that’s most widely available has either white or red pulp with black seeds. Dragon fruit may look exotic, but its flavours are similar to other fruits. Its taste can be described as a slightly sweet cross between a kiwi and a pear. Dragonfruit contains small amounts of several nutrients and is a good source of vitamin C and iron.
Dragonfruit is also a low-calorie fruit that is high in fibre and contains several types of antioxidants to protect cells from damage. So how do you eat this exotic fruit? Select a ripe fruit with bright red, evenly coloured skin that gives way slightly when squeezed.
Use a sharp knife and cut straight through the fruit, slicing it in half. You can use a spoon to eat the fruit out of the skin. You can also peel the skin off and slice the fruit into small pieces.
Sitaphal — Custard apples
Custard apple, also known as sitaphal in India, has also started appearing in markets. If you don’t know this fruit, it’s time to get acquainted because they are in season and are packed full of nutrition and natural medicines.
Do a Google search on this mystical fruit and you’ll discover it can heal and repair lots of modern-day ailments. It’s no wonder that those in the know buy this fruit in bulk. It has a creamy and granular textured flesh, surrounded by seeds. The skin of the fruit is thin, tough and almost scale-like.
The fruit is native to West Indies, Central America, Peru and Mexico, and like a lot of fruit from that region, contains mystical healing properties. Custard apples contain antioxidants like vitamin C, as well as potassium and magnesium that protects our heart from cardiac disease and Vitamin A to keep skin and hair healthy.
This fruit is also known to be great for eyes, and cures indigestion problems. It’s important to include this fruit in your diet, as the unique copper content helps to cure constipation, and helps to treat diarrhoea and dysentery.
As they are high in magnesium, they equalise the water balance in our body, which helps in removing acids from the joints and reduces the symptoms of rheumatism and arthritis. If you feel tired and weak more often than usual, then have this fruit in your daily diet, as the potassium present in it will help to fight muscle weakness. And if you want to put on some weight, include this in your daily diet chart as it is high in natural sugars and unlike dragonfruit, is high in calories.
It’s called custard apple because it tastes like sweet custard and cooked apple. Together, these flavours are delicate and creamy. Another name for the custard apple is bullock’s heart. It’s also widely used in Indian ayurveda, thanks to its powerful medicinal properties so enjoy them while they last. Enjoy this fruit on its own or in any dessert recipe.
Durian — king of fruits
Durian is the smelliest, yet one of the most nutritious fruits in the world. It’s a fruit that grows in South East Asia and is widely regarded as the king of fruits. It has a strong odour that makes people either love it or hate it.
Think of the stinkiest blue cheese or rotting jackfruit or bananas and you would be at about 10 per cent of its smell. A lot of hotels in Asia ban its existence in the kitchen or breakfast buffet because its stench. It is one of those nose-searing smells you’ll never forget!
So why is this dragon-looking fruit so popular, especially in Asia. Local farmer Dick Watling at Hogamata Farms is the only grower of durian and when the fruit drops, his first customers are inevitably Asian descended.
Durian is an excellent source of energy with one 200 gram serving of this fruit covering about 20 per cent of your daily needs for carbohydrates and nine grams of fibre which is 37 per cent of your daily needs. Durian is also high in good fats and calories.
If you’re looking to put on weight with nutritious foods, durian is up there with custard apples. Vitamin wise, this fruit has them all — B, C, iron, copper, manganese, potassium, thiamin, folate and even tryptophan, nature’s sleeping pill. With so many vitamins and minerals, durian is also known as an aphrodisiac food for those wanting a little more love in bed! There are a lot of health benefits to durian but be sure you do not eat too much. Like caviar and lobster, it’s very rich in carbs, calories, and good fats which can cause you to gain weight. It’s an unusual fruit but when eaten in moderation, it can be a very healthy, amorous fruit — if you can stand the smell.