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Geo-Joint: Foreign fruit

Posted on March 30 2016


Suppose someone offered you a Chinese gooseberry. Or a carambola. How about a slice of durian? Some jackfruit? Care for a rambutan? What? These are all fruits from faraway places, some of which you may have tried, but probably don’t consume as much as you do apples, oranges and grapes. It’s a good bet you’ve had Chinese gooseberry, but not by that name. It was a fruit imported from China to New Zealand in 1904. People thought its flavor resembled a gooseberry (and of course we all know what those taste like) so “Chinese gooseberry” was a logical name. The names “mihou tao” or “yang tao,” as the Chinese called them, didn’t roll off the New Zealander’s tongues quite so easily.

The fruit became popular and widely grown in the hospitable climates of New Zealand, and by the 1950s it was something that had a big future as an export crop. Unfortunately, at that time especially, the red scare of communist China made marketing the fruit to the U.S. as “Chinese anything” was a non-starter. So some clever wordsmith suggested they might be called kiwifruit, given their resemblance to the small brown hairy-looking bird native to NZ, and the rest is history. If it isn’t strange enough to name a fruit after a nocturnal, ground-nesting bird, consider that they have also been called macaque peaches. And of course, a Kiwi is also the common nickname for those large two-legged mammals who populate the North and South Islands.

Lots of other countries have taken up growing kiwifruit for export, so the Kiwis themselves have turned to branding most of their homegrown product as “Zespries,” in order to differentiate them from the foreign-grown fruit. You’ve got to do something to avoid identity theft.

The carambola comes to us by way of the Philippines, though it originally hails from Sri Lanka and has been grown all over Southeast Asia for centuries. Of course it has myriad names in the many countries found in that region but has taken on a new name on these shores: starfruit. It’s also been called five angled fruit, due to its five radiating flanges. If that isn’t clear, just know that when you slice it narrowly cross-wise, the result is…a star! It has a sour to tangy to sweet taste reminiscent of plums, pineapples, and lemons. Tropical fruit are often a delightful almalgam of more familiar fruit flavors.

The durian seems to have held onto its native name so far, though it has also been called, for some unfathomable reason, golden pillow. The durian is named for its thorny exterior – “duri” means “thorn” in Malay – and it’s covered with them. Inside is a whitish-yellowish flesh that has been variously described as smelling of rotting meat, turpentine, decaying onions, gym socks (not clean ones), B.O. plus vinegar, and on and on. The radiating power of those gagging odors has caused it to be banned from some places such as buses and hotels, where people have been driven away by the smell. However, like some famously odiferous cheeses, the taste of the fruit is heavenly, and many swear it is the finest fruit flavor on the planet. Apparently they have only loving names for the durian, but the Germans call it “Stinkfrucht, which needs no translation.

Jackfruit probably got its name from the Portuguese who couldn’t properly pronounce the name used in India, and called it “jaca.” In any case, this one is even less common hereabouts, for various reasons. For one, the fruit can weigh up to 100 pounds, and it has some of the durian’s aromatic charm, as well as its spiky exterior. The fruit can grow directly from the trunk, which can be 40 or 50 feet high. Rambutan are a little more hand-sized, 9-18 to the pound. The Malaysians have also named this fruit – “rambut” means “hairy”- and the outside skin is covered in flexible, spiny hairs. They taste something like a lychee nut, far more subtle than the jackfruit or durian.

So fruit names give us a clue as to their home turf and sometimes tell a story of their travels on the way to our shores. Anyone for a cherimoya, a horned melon or a fingered citron?

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