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5 Exotic Fruits and Vegetables to Try Today!

Sharon Palmer

A bounty of unusual, colorful, flavorful produce—beyond the ordinary bananas, peas, and carrots—awaits your discovery. Here are five less common exotic fruits and vegetables to set you on a culinary journey less traveled.

There are an estimated 50,000 edible plant species—from apples to zucchinis—on this big, beautiful planet. Yet only a few hundred species account for 40% of what we consume. (1) That means you may be missing out on a veritable cornucopia of beautiful fruits and vegetables in your diet—each with their own unique color, flavor, texture, and aroma. Not to mention nutritious health profiles, too. Take a bite out of these less common fruits and vegetables to expand the character of your healthy, delicious eating style.

I plucked this pomelo from my garden. Learn how to cook with pomelos here.

Pomelo

At first sight, you might suspect that a pomelo is really an enormous grapefruit. Indeed, it is closely related. Pomelo (Citrus maxima or Citrus grandis) is the largest of the citrus fruit, and one of the original citrus species, originating from China and Southeast Asia. You can grow it in the U.S. too—I have a pomelo tree growing in my garden now. Like grapefruit, pomelos can vary in color from green, pink, or yellow but, unlike their cousins, they can grow to the size of a small bowling ball. When comparing tastes, the pomelo has a variety of flavors, ranging from sweet and sour to tangy and tart, which makes this fruit wonderfully versatile in the kitchen. The pomelo is considered a symbol of prosperity for the Chinese Lunar New Year, and it’s easy to see why—when you dig through its fragrant skin and thick membrane, you uncover a fresh, jewel-like fruit treasure.

Pomelos can be enjoyed just like grapefruit.

There are many nutritional benefits for consuming pomelos, as they are an excellent source of vitamin C, potassium, fiber, and limonene, a phytochemical with antioxidant effects. Citrus fruits, like pomelo, are beneficial for heart, bone, and brain health, as well as cancer protection. (2)

Pomelos are extremely versatile in the kitchen, due to their unique flavor and texture. They pair well with herbs, such as mint, cilantro, and basil; fruits, like pineapple, coconut, and mango; and spring vegetables, including carrots, radishes, and onions. Heat can make the pomelo bitter, but you can add this fruit to hot dishes at the end of cooking. Try pomelo in recipes that usually call for lemon or citrus, such as pasta, roasted vegetables, and salads.

Jackfruit for sale in a farmers market in Thailand.

Jackfruit

A veritable jack-of-all-trades, jackfruit is a versatile, staple fruit native to South and Southeast Asia. Jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) is in the mulberry family; the fruit grows on trees to gigantic proportions, reaching up to 80 pounds. It is sweet when ripe, thus it is often used in jams, juice, and desserts. But jackfruit is unique because it has a wider use when the fruit is unripe—then it yields a stringy, chewy texture and red color, similar to that of pulled meat. When marinated in flavorful sauces, jackfruit can serve as a meat alternative. Jackfruit is a good source of fiber, vitamins A and C, riboflavin, and minerals, like magnesium, potassium, and copper. The fruit is also rich in phytochemicals, including carotenoids, which have been linked to cancer protection, heart health, and reduced risk of age-related eye problems. (3)

You may find ripe jackfruit at specialty Asian markets, and unripe jackfruit is typically available canned. Enjoy sweetened jackfruit in desserts, or as a spread over toast. Try simmering unripe jackfruit in flavorful sauces, such as curry, barbeque, or tomato.

Simply serve this simmered, saucy jackfruit with steamed whole grains as a meatless alternative.

Celery root for sale at my local farmers market in Pasadena.

Celery Root

Also known as celeriac, the gnarled, hairy celery root may not be the prettiest of the pack, but this flavorful, healthy vegetable packs a flavor and nutrition punch. Celery root (Apium graveolens var. Rapaceum) is a variety in the parsley family, along with celery, but it’s grown for its underground root rather than its stalks. Beneath its rough skin, you’ll find crisp, white flesh that is delicious when used in a number of dishes. Plus, the root is a trove of nutrients, such as fiber, vitamins C, B6, and K, phosphorus, manganese, and potassium. This nutrient profiles means the root is particularly supportive of healthy bones, heart, and blood pressure.

Enjoy raw celery root grated into salads or as a fresh vegetable dipped into hummus, and cook and puree it in soups, mash or roast it as a side dish, or slice it into a gratin or vegetable chip baked with olive oil and seasonings.

Colorful dragon fruit for sale in Hawaii.

Dragon Fruit

While this prickly plant with a bright fuchsia peel and greenish scales and horns may resemble a dragon, its fruit is delicately sweet and tender. Also known as pitaya, dragon fruit (Hylocereus) is born from a climbing cactus. Originating from arid regions of the Americas, this exotic looking fruit thrives in warm regions of the world, including Southeast Asia, Mexico, and the Caribbean. I can find it locally in my farmers markets in Southern California, and I have one growing in my garden. Dragon fruit is rich in antioxidant compounds (thanks to the fruit’s vibrant colors), as well as vitamin C and fiber. One of the benefits of such nutrients is a reduced risk of heart disease. Even the seeds contain essential fatty acids, which may help lower cholesterol.

Red Dragon Fruit Smoothie

To enjoy dragon fruit, simple slice it in half and discover the tender white flesh studded with black edible seeds—just scoop it out with a spoon and eat it. You can also slice the fruit into wedges in a tropical fruit platter, over a bowl of granola, into a deep green salad, or in a blender to whizz into a smoothie. Check out my tips on how to use dragon fruit here.

Beautiful persimmons for sale at the Pasadena farmers market.

Persimmons

The harvest of sunset-colored persimmons aptly comes in the falltime, when the leaves of autumn trees turn the same rusty shade. These intensely sweet, flavorful fruits are delicious served fresh, as well as in cooking. While there are hundreds of varieties of persimmons, the Japanese persimmon (Diospyros kaki) is what we usually see in this country—the acorn-shaped Hachiya is the most common of this variety. Like many persimmons, this variety is astringent, so it must be fully ripened to a very soft flesh before you can eat it. The tomato-shaped, non-astringent Fuyu persimmon is quite different, as it can be eaten when it is crisp and firm. Persimmons are rich in beta-carotene, as well as manganese, fiber, and tannins, plant compounds linked with lowering blood cholesterol levels. Preliminary research has also found that persimmons may provide a protective effect against thyroid cancer risk.

Mediterranean Persimmon White Bean Kale Salad

Persimmons are best enjoyed as a fresh, seasonal whole fruit, but you can also add them to baked goods, like breads, cakes, and muffins, or sliced into your oatmeal porridge, soy yogurt bowl, or hearty salad. Learn more about cooking with persimmons here.

For some of my favorite recipes using these fruits, check out the following:

Jackfruit Black Bean Quinoa Tacos
Persimmon Arugula Brown Rice Salad

References:

  1. Staple Foods: What do people eat? Accessed at: http://www.fao.org/3/u8480e/u8480e07.htm
  2. Nutritional and health benefits of citrus fruit. Accessed at: http://www.fao.org/3/x2650T/x2650t03.htm
  3. Nutritional and Health Benefits of Jackfruit. Int J Food Sci 2019. Accessed at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6339770/

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