Southeast Asia is home to some extremely exotic, at times funny-looking, fruit. Many visitors enjoy gazing at the colourful, interesting fruits as they pass by the fruit stands, but too many miss out on their delicious flavour, simply because they are unsure what to expect. Here, we’ll cover ten of the most popular Southeast Asian fruits, uncovering the origin, taste, cost, and buying basics.
A strong-smelling fruit encased in an intimidating, spiky shell, you either love durian, or you hate it. The edible part of durian is a soft, yellow, custard-like substance that has a sweet, yet vaguely oniony, taste.
Durian’s roots are unclear, but it’s believed to be indigenous to Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Borneo. Four hundred years ago, a lively durian trade existed between Lower and Upper Burma, for it was a prized food in the Royal Palace.
Buying basics: Durian is sold at road-side stands with the fleshy parts extracted, and wrapped in cling film. Test it to make sure it’s not to firm, and not overly soft. It should feel softer than a ripe mango, but not like pudding.Durian season is around March to July, and tends to be pricier than other Southeast Asian fruits.
Nutritional info: The fruit is known to be high in sugar and fat, and thus is why many Southeast Asians say you shouldn’t eat it if you’re on a diet. But actually, durian is high in good fat. It’s also known to be a good blood cleanser, and to contain high levels of tryptophan, which alleviate depression and anxiety, and help insomnia. Since it is relatively high in protein, durian is thought to be a good muscle-builder. Around Asia, durian is also thought to be an aphrodisiac.
Jackfruit is a shiny yellow fruit, encased in a large spiky shell (like durian). Unlike durian, it is almost universally-liked, as it has the vague taste of cotton candy.
This fruit is believed to be indigenous to the rainforests of the Western Ghats, located in India, and has long been cultivated throughout much of Southeast Asia.
Buying basics: Like durian, jackfruit is sold extracted from its shell. When buying make sure the fruit doesn’t look limp – it should be crunchy. The fruit is in season from March to July or August.
Nutritional info: Jackfruit is high in sugar (hence its candy-like taste), but also a good source of vitamins A and C. It’s also rich in dietary fibre, and antioxidant flavinoids like beta-carotene and lutein, which are known to protect against certain kinds of cancer.
The rose apple is sweeter than an apple, and shaped like a pear. Its exterior is pinky-red, rigged, and shiny, and the fruit is crunchy. The inside is white and has a subtle, watery, and vaguely apple-like taste.
Native to the East Indies and Malaysia, the rose apple has been cultivated and naturalized in many parts of Southeast Asia and India.
Buying basics: Rose apple season varies widely, but can start as early as January, and is usually over by July. The fruit often comes pre-cut at roadside stands. Look out for bruising or browning around the edges.
Nutritional info: Rose apple is known to be a helpful fruit for diabetics, since it is thought to affect the pancreas, blocking the conversion of starch into sugar. It is also known to help with diarrhea, sterility in females, and liver problems.
This fruit is tough, bumpy and green on the outside, and white and thick, creamy and granular flesh on the inside, with medium-sized black seeds. It has a vaguely sweet taste.
The custard apple is believed to be native to the West Indies, but has been since introduced to many of the world’s tropical regions. It is common throughout most of Southeast Asia. In India, it is eaten only by the lower classes.
Buying basics: The shell should be a yellow or brownish to signify the apple is ripe, and it should not be split anywhere. The fruit inside should be soft to the touch. The flesh can be scooped out of the shell and eaten as is.
Nutritional info: The fruit is high in vitamins A and C, as well as magnesium, potassium, and dietary fibre. It is also rich in iron, phosphorous, calcium, and riboflavin. It is known to cure digestion issues and vertigo.
This fruit has a spiky, scaly vibrant pink or yellow exterior. The scales are likely what it derived its name from. Inside is either a bright purple or vivid white flesh dotted with tiny seeds, which tastes sweet when in season, and relatively bland and even sour when out-of-season.
The dragon fruit is of the cactus species (hence the spikes). Though native to Central America, the fruit was introduced to Vietnam by the French over 100 years ago, and became one of the country’s most profitable crops. It has since spread across Southeast Asia.
Buying basics: The fruit is ripe when the green, spiney leaves (the spikes) turn brown and dry. It’s not advisable to eat the skin, so it’s best to buy it pre-cut and peeled. The purple flesh variety will stain clothes, so be careful.
Nutritional info: Dragon fruit is known to improve eyesight and prevent hypertension. Its seeds (which are difficult to remove and usually eaten with the flesh) are thought to control blood glucose levels in people with a certain kind of diabetes. The purple flesh variety is high in antioxidants.
Sweet tamarind comes in long, brown pod form. The flesh inside is dark-coloured, chewy acidic, and, as the name implies, sweet. The flesh is wrapped around black, jewel-like seeds.
This fruit is native to tropical Africa, and reached India several thousands of years ago through human transportation. It spread throughout tropical Asia, and even into China.
Buying basics: Tamarind typically comes into season during the dry months, around December to April. Buy quite a few pods, since the yield inside is much less than it may seem on the outside. To eat, break the shell and remove the strings. Fish out the dark flesh and be sure to watch out for the hard seeds.
Nutritional info: This is a favoured snack among Asian women because it’s a fat-free, tasty snack. It is high in both vitamin B, and calcium (which is unusual for a fruit). Tamarind is used in Indian Ayurvedic medicine for gastric and digestion problems. It is also thought to be a laxative, an antiseptic, antiviral, and curative for a long list of ailments.
Shiny, palm-sized, rounded orange persimmons are a surprising favourite of many visitors to Southeast Asia. They’re incredibly sweet, though best when peeled, as the skin can leave a dry, waxy residue on the tongue.
Though it may be difficult to believe, the persimmon is actually a berry.
Buying basics: Persimmons normally cost about a dollar each. Make sure the fruit is vibrant orange in colour and not bruised. It is usually stacked high at roadside stands, so be careful to pick one that won’t cause the whole stack to come tumbling down.
Nutritional info: Take special care not to eat an unripened persimmon, which is known to cause stomach problems that can require surgery. That being said, persimmons are renowned for their health benefits: they are excellent sources of fibre and vitamin A, and it is thought to have anti-cancer properties.
Mangosteen is a funny, cartoon-like fruit. It’s a round, bulb-like shape, smaller than an apple, and purple, topped by thick, shiny green leaves and a sturdy stem. Once opened, the fruit reveals a white pulp divided into four or more segments.
Legend has it that Queen Victoria offered a reward of 100 pounds to anyone who would find and deliver her the fresh fruit. It’s not known where the fruit originated, but it is believe to be around Indonesia. The fruit grows wild in parts of the Malaysian forest, and has been cultivated in much of Southeast Asia.
Buying basics: The fruit usually ripens between May and September. It’s possible to gauge the fruit’s ripeness by the deepness of its colour (rich purple is ideal), while the shell should be slightly soft to the touch – but not overly so.
Nutritional info: The mangosteen is rich in xanthones, which are thought to help allergies, infections, cholesterol levels, inflammation, skin disorders, gastro-intestinal disorders, and fatigue. They are also extremely high in fiber, with about five grams of fiber per serving.
This is another cartoon-like fruit that many think looks like something from another planet, or from the depths of the ocean. Its exterior is a vibrant pink, with hints of green, with a coat of thin, long, soft spikes. Inside, the fruit is similar to a lychee, but thicker and sweeter.
This fruit is native to Malaysia, and has spread throughout Southeast Asia. It grows to a limited degree in India, and parts of South America.
Buying basics: The best time to buy rambutan is usually around June, and then again in December. Look for rambutan that are bright in colour, with little-to-no browning at the tips of the spikes.
Nutritional info: The fruit contains some protein and fat, as well as phosphorous, iron, calcium, and vitamin C. It is thought that the seeds, when eaten raw, can help to reduce body fat. Copper and zinc are also prominent in the fruit.
This hard, starchy, green version of a mango is not a dessert like its sweet, yellow cousin. Instead, it is sour, and often used in main dishes and salads in Southeast Asia.
The mango, and all its varieties, is native to Southeast Asia (notably Burma), and India. The green mango is an unripe mango, and it has long been highly prized in Southeast Asia.
Buying basics: It’s possible to get fresh green mango from fruit stands almost any time of the year. It usually comes with salt or sugar to dip the pieces in. Look for a nice, green colour in your fruit.
Nutritional info: The unripe mango is rich in pectin, which is a soluble fiber that aids in intestinal regulation. Green mangoes are also rich in vitamin C (much more than ripe mangoes), and vitamins B1 and B2.