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Exotic Fruits for the Die-Hard Foodie

There's nothing like biting into the sweet, juicy flesh of a peach in the summer, but why not try a refreshing bite of a dragon fruit ( photo right) or a handful of rambutans?

There are a number of tasty exotic fruits lining gourmet food stores and produce aisles, just waiting to be pulled apart and devoured by anyone gutsy enough to give them a try. But while passersby may be intrigued by scaly magenta skin and grass-like growth from a fruit, many just aren't sure how to approach food they've never had before.

"These new fruits represent a really great new opportunity for discovery," says Norman Van Aken, chef and author of The Great Exotic Fruit Book: A Handbook of Tropical and Subtropical Fruits .

"At one time bananas were considered exotic, as was pineapple," he notes. "Look how much those have become mainstream."

Three to Try

One of the most eye-catching tropical fruits is the dragon fruit, which looks somewhat like an ostrich-egg-sized orb with the skin of a scaly, bright pink beast.

The pulp of this cactus fruit can be purple, pink or, more commonly, white, with little black seeds like those in kiwis. And it tastes like a milder version of kiwi, with a hint of pineapple flavor. All you need to do is peel off the skin and scoop out the flesh to eat by itself or in salads.

Produce specialist (and online shop) Melissa's introduced dragon fruits to the U.S. six years ago, says spokesman Robert Schueller. Native to Central and South America and Asia, they're now grown in California and are in season August through November.

"The best way is to let them ripen and eat them purely and simply," right out of your hand, Van Aken says. Tropical fruits should be ripened at room temperature, but after that can be refrigerated if you want to serve them cold.

Still, "if you want a milkshake, I wouldn't fault you for it," Van Aken adds. Melissa's Great Book of Produce also says that a number of tropical fruits go well with ice cream.

The rambutan ( photo below right) looks like a small red ball of fur -- or a tentacled sea creature -- but the flesh inside is sweet, not slimy.

Closely related to the lychee and longan, rambutans are firmer and have a milder flavor, much like a grape, and grow on trees across Asia as well as in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Just work through the green hairs and peel off the skin to uncover the refreshing white fruit with an almond-sized pit inside.

Rambutans can be found fresh in the U.S. August through February, but are also available year-round, peeled, pitted and canned, alone or stuffed with pineapple chunks.

Another tropical fruit with a deceiving appearance is the leathery, drab green cherimoya, which holds a hidden treasure of fragrant flesh.

Also known as a custard apple, the cherimoya's meat is soft but luscious -- "deliciousness itself," according to Mark Twain.

This green grenade combines an almost flowery scent with "tutti-frutti tropical flavors with hints of pineapple, kiwi, orange and vanilla," says Schueller. Just pull it apart or cut it in half, scoop out the fruit and discard the large black seeds.

Native to Peru and Ecuador, cherimoyas are available year-round and are grown domestically from December to June.

Goodness in a Glass

One tropical fruit that has jumped in popularity recently is acai, now hailed as a wrinkle-fighting, mind-sharpening antioxidant power food. And acai berries, which boast more antioxidants than pomegranates or blueberries, are high in fiber, vitamins, minerals and so-called "good fats" as well.

Chew on a Cherimoya

However acai, a staple of the Amazon region, is more often seen in juices and smoothies than as whole berries themselves in the U.S. The grape-sized fruit, which are produced by palm trees in Central and South America, are about 80% seed.

Acai can be found in a number of bottled juices and as frozen pulp in gourmet food stores like Whole Foods (WFMI) under labels like Amazon Acai , Sambazon and others.

Juice from young coconuts, which are harvested year round, has less fat than regular coconuts and is increasingly being sold alongside bottled beverages as a sports drink. It's naturally high in electrolytes and packs a potassium punch.

According to Zico , a company offering its own brand of young-coconut juice spiked with natural essences like mango, passion fruit and orange peel, coconut water provides five essential electrolytes for hydration. Potassium, also found in bananas and many other fruits and vegetables, helps regulate hydration and prevents muscle cramping.

ONE World Enterprises says its O.N.E. Coconut Water contains 15 times the amount of potassium of the average sports drink. The juice promotes digestive health, and studies have shown that it can even help dissolve kidney stones, the company says.

Regardless of the health benefits seen in studies, young coconuts and the rest of the wide array of fresh tropical fruits are full of flavor, and offer a deliciously unusual way to cool off in the summer months.

Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.
Althea Chang is a freelance health and science writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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