Asian Fruits: The Good, The Weird & The Smelly
One of the most exciting aspects of travelling in Asia is trying a variety of wonderful and weird fruits that are available. If you take a stroll through any local market in Southeast Asia, chances are you’ll see (and smell!) some bizarre looking fruits that you have never seen before!
Not only are these treasures of nature lip-smackingly delicious, but they are also packed with more vitamins, anti-oxidants and health-boosting qualities than you could ever imagine, offering all you need to keep your body in tip-top shape whilst travelling.
As well as being the perfect snack, Southeast Asia’s fruits are also used frequently in local cuisine, forming ingredients in many salads, curries and stir-fries.
Our Top 10 Exotic Asian Fruits!
So… Here’s our list of the top 10 must-try exotic fruits of Asia. Plus (at the end), one weird fruit, that we wish we’d never tried at all!
1. Durian – The Smelly
Nicknamed the ‘King of Asian Fruits’ we just had to place this notorious green prickly monster at number one on the list! The beloved durian is a treasured delicacy and one that is almost an icon for Southeast Asia itself. Even Bangkok, Thailand’s flavoursome capital, is sometimes referred to as the ‘Big Durian’.
The fruit has got a deserved reputation as a bit of a stinker, which is why you’ll see signs banning durians on many forms of public transport, cinemas and hotels in this part of the world. A distinct flavour, with a light creamy texture, the durian is undoubtedly an acquired taste. Many people who try the fruit for the first time are amazed by its unusual flavour, but in our opinion, the claims for it being the most disgusting fruit in the world are wildly exaggerated.
Anyhow, once you get past the smell, it’ll do wonders for your health and would you believe your sex life! Rich in Vitamin B, C and E, the durian has the power to lower cholesterol and with a high level of protein, it’s also a great muscle builder.
The peak season for the durian is May to August, and when the flesh becomes ripe it is slightly soft to touch, but without being crunchy. Apparently, the riper the fruit, the more intense the lingering aroma.
Be warned though, due to its popularity and its short season, the durian is one of the most expensive fruits in Asia, with a small serving of three hearts costing around 100 THB in Thailand ($4 US), while other fruits are considerably cheaper.
Did you know that the most expensive durian ever sold in Thailand went for a whopping 300,000 THB ($9,000 USD)? Sold at a charity auction, the extortionate fruit belonged to the most exquisite variety of durian, the kanyao.
Top Tip: Freeze your durian for a dessert-like experience where the fruit becomes akin to ice-cream! Freezing the fruit also reduces the smell.
2. Mangosteen – The Royal
If the durian is the ‘King of Tropical Fruits’, then mangosteen is the ‘Queen’, making second place in our exotic fruits list!
Hailed as ‘delectable’ and ‘luxurious’ the exquisite flavour of the fruit has been celebrated and praised by many authors and influential people. Legend has it that Queen Victoria offered a reward of 100 English Pounds and the promise of a Knighthood to anyone who could deliver her a perfectly fresh mangosteen!
Crack open the hard purple outer shell to squeeze out segments of soft white flesh; sweet, tangy and tantalising to the taste buds. As well as being delicious, the mangosteen has many significant health benefits and mangosteen juice has recently become a popular health drink.
Regarded as an energy booster, anti-depressant, antibiotic, anti-ageing and helping to prevent diseases such as Alzheimer’s, fungal infections, diabetes, gum disease, glaucoma and many other illnesses. If a fruit this tasty can be this good for you, no wonder it’s been given the royal title!
Top Tip: To open a mangosteen easily, instead of trying to pull it apart, or peel it, give it a twist – you’ll look like a pro!
3. Mango – The Popular
The classic and unarguably delicious mango makes number three on our list of the best oriental fruits! However, would you believe there are as many as 1000 different varieties of mango in the world?
Apparently, every different kind of mango is super good for you. Crammed with powerful anti-oxidants and enzymes that can fight cancer, alleviate anaemia, protect against heart disease, relieve clogged pores in your skin and even boost your sex life! Plus, they’re low in carbohydrates, rich in iron and high in Vitamin A and C. What a fruit, huh?
In Southeast Asia, Mangoes are the key ingredient in many famous recipes and snacks. Locals eat them dried, pickled, fresh or raw with a savoury chilli dip made with palm sugar and fish sauce. Most backpackers will be familiar with the famous Asian dessert ‘mango and sticky rice’ with coconut juice poured generously over the top. If you’re in Thailand and you haven’t tried this, the most delicious street food dessert in Southeast Asia, I urge you to stop reading this now and go find it!
Top Tip: Don’t dismiss a green mango as unripe and inedible! Slice it up and dip it in a salt and chilli dip for a crunchy tangy snack, just like the locals do!
4. Dragon Fruit – The Spiky
The spiky dragon fruit is actually a type of cactus that flourishes in the high temperatures of tropical regions throughout the world. It is believed to have originated from South America and introduced to Asia when they were brought to Vietnam by the French over a hundred years ago, where they were originally grown for royalty and the wealthy.
The flesh of the dragon fruit refreshing and sweet and is often served as a juice, in fruit salads or even made into jam. They are sometimes blended with alcohol to make a delicious cocktail.
Amongst other health benefits, dragon fruit is said to improve eye-sight and prevent hypertension. They are regarded as particularly beneficial to people with diabetes as are said to help lower blood glucose levels. High in Vitamin C and dietary fibre, they are also believed to have the potential to reduce fat and aid weight loss for those looking to stay trim!
Top Tip: The darker the red on the outside of the fruit, the more likely it is to be pink on the inside! (In our opinion, this is the most delicious variety of dragon fruit.)
5. Coconut – The Tropical
Available all year round, the coconut is the consistent superstar fruit of Asia! It’s the fruit that says immediately – you’re on your travels, you’ve arrived in a far off, exotic land!
Sipping fresh coconut juice straight from the shell whilst on a white sandy beach is the stuff of dreams when you’re sitting in the office at home. Aside from the glamour, the coconut is a truly remarkable health restorer and it is the coconut oil that is the real elixir.
Coconut oil has been used in traditional folk medicine amongst Asian and Pacific people for generations to treat a variety of ailments such as asthma, baldness, bronchitis, constipation, earache, scurvy, gonorrhoea, tuberculosis, upset stomach, dysentery, fevers and more!
Today, scientists are discovering amazing new benefits for the use of the oil in modern medicine, ranging from the power to kill the viruses that cause herpes, measles (and some believe even HIV) to the ability to prevent dandruff, wrinkles and sagging skin!
For thousands of years coconuts have provided a staple source of nutrition with nearly one-third of the world’s population depending on it for food and as an important part of their economy, leading some cultures to call it ‘The Tree of Life.’ It is also used as a base for many dishes in Asia; famously, Amok Curry in Cambodia, Tom Yum Gung soup in Thailand and Malaysia’s Laksa Curry. Oh, and it’s also great in cocktails of course!
Top Tip: Dehydrated? Had the runs? The coconut is the best way to get the essential minerals back into your body, apparently, coconut water is even more hydrating than water! (Rumour has it that coconut water was used during World War II to give to wounded soldiers as a blood plasma replacement!)
6. Jackfruit – The Big
Believed to have been first cultivated in Indian rainforests, the jackfruit is known to be the largest tree-borne fruit in the world growing up to 90cm long and weighing up to 50kg! It’s a wonder how these enormous swollen fruits stay on the trees.
Hard and prickly on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside, the jackfruit is bursting with health benefits – even the seeds are good for you! Rich in potassium, the jackfruit is said to help lower the blood pressure. It is also believed to have anti-ageing, anti-oxidant, anti-ulcer properties and help treat a number of skin problems.
For backpackers with a case of ‘traveller diarrhoea’, you’ll be pleased to know that jackfruit has been found beneficial in relieving symptoms, as well as curing fever.
The jackfruit becomes sweeter as it ripens and its delicate taste and fragrance mean that it is often used as an ingredient in desserts such as a traditional home-made coconut ice cream. Deep-fried jackfruit is also a popular snack. From the leaves to the flowers and the seeds, every part of the jackfruit is edible and are featured in savoury dishes such as curries or eaten with chilli dips.
Top Tip: For the vegans amongst you, jackfruit makes an incredible meat substitute due to its full and fleshy texture.
7. Papaya – The Healthy
The papaya is probably the number one fruit in terms of balanced nutrition. Containing just about every vitamin and mineral your body needs! Foliate, Vitamin E, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, lipids, amino acids, it wipes the floor with your run-of-the-mill fruits, putting their nutritional value to shame! If there was such thing as an Asian superfruit – the nutritious papaya is it!
The papaya has 33% more Vitamin C and 50% more potassium than oranges, thirteen times more Vitamin C, twice the potassium of apples and four times more Vitamin E than apples and oranges! It has no cholesterol or saturated fat and it contains Vitamin A, C, calcium, iron and fibre, good for the digestive system and the heart.
The papaya is widely eaten as a fresh fruit in Asia and grown in many parts of the region as an economic crop. It also features widely in Southeast Asian cooking and cuisine. In Thailand, the sour green papaya is the key ingredient of one of their most famous dishes, ‘Papaya salad’ or ‘Som Tam’. Sliced papaya, crushed peanuts, garlic, chilli, lime juice, fish sauce, tomatoes, dried shrimp and crushed peanuts go together to make this extremely popular Asian street food dish!
Top Tip: If you haven’t tried ripe orange papaya with lime juice, you haven’t tried papaya! (Also great for settling upset stomachs.) Ideal in a fruit shake!
8. Lychees – The Sexy
Originating in China, the exotic delicacy, the lychee, is in high demand all over the world. Sweet, succulent and likened to the texture of a grape, Thai lychees are one of Thailand’s major exports, exported in many different forms: fresh, dried, frozen, and canned. Increasingly popular nowadays is lychee juice and even lychee wine.
Often considered a little bit glam and a little bit sexy, lychees have even been considered as a symbol of love and sensuality, and one of the most popular Chinese fruits. In ancient Chinese history, legend has it that the last Emperor of the Tang Dynasty had his guards travel over 600 miles across China to bring fresh lychees to the palace in an attempt to woo his beloved.
They are usually sweet and, unlike other fruits, lychees do not ripen after picking so if plucked too early can have a bitter aftertaste. In terms of health benefits, they are extremely high in anti-oxidants, potassium and vitamin C and jam-packed with anti-ageing and disease-fighting anti-oxidants. Studies have shown that eating lychee fruit may reduce the risk of cancer.
Top Tip: Pick the reddest lychees for the ripest taste!
9. Rambutan – The Hairy
Another lychee-like fruit is the bright red and green rambutan. With a thick, hairy outer skin and sweet succulent flesh clinging to the seed inside, the rambutan is considered a rare and exotic fruit by Westerners and those living in cooler climates. To people in Thailand, The Phillippines, Malaysia, Borneo and other countries across Southeast Asia, the rambutan is as common as your average apple to the English!
Many people are amazed by the nutritional value of the rambutan, packed with vitamins A and C, zinc, calcium, magnesium, iron, copper protein and more, it’s been hailed as having the ability to fight infection and bacteria in the body and stimulate the production of red and white blood cells.
A study in Malaysia showed that the fruit contains antiseptic properties, effective as a topical ointment to fight infection outside as well as inside the body.
Top Tip: Also try the less exotic looking fruit which is very similar to rambutan, known in Thailand as the ‘longan’. It’s like a small brown grape, with a hard shell on the outside. On the inside, the fruit is very similar to rambutan, some would say even tastier, despite its more modest appearance!
10. Pomelo – The Tarty
The citrus fruit pomelo is the Asian equivalent of the grapefruit, but much bigger and nowhere near as sour! Originating in China and mentioned in Ancient Chinese literature, the fruit is now eaten as a dessert or snack all over Asia.
Research has shown that it is rich in many essential vitamins and minerals, notably vitamins B and C, potassium, beta-carotene and folic acid, which is important for pregnant women to ensure the health of the baby.
It is great for people trying to lose weight as it simultaneously satisfies hunger, whilst accelerating the breakdown of proteins and fats. Scientists also believe that the pomelo is a mood booster, invigorating our senses and improving stamina. There is even a special pomelo diet developed by doctors to treat asthma.
Top Tip: In the Philippines, the fruit is known as ‘lukban’ and it is cut into wedges and dipped in a salt and chilli mix before eaten. You can find it eaten this way across all of Southeast Asia and makes the perfect pick-me-up snack whilst backpacking!
11. The Wood Apple – The Weird and Revolting!
The terrifying wood apple AKA the bael fruit. Even my boyfriend (who will eat absolutely anything!) found this fruit difficult to swallow when he bought it from a street vendor in Sri Lanka.
Oh yes, it looks like shit. But guess what? There’s an interesting twist… it actually tastes like vomit! Yay!
With a flavour that can only be described as rancid puke, this fruit is hands down the most disgusting food (let alone fruit!) that I have ever tried in Asia. While some liken the taste to ‘jam’, ‘tamarind’ ‘raisins’ and even ‘cream cheese’, personally, I found the fruit to be far too acidic, almost fizzy, to eat without gagging. Perhaps more like a really old blue cheese or a tramp’s crotch?
The strange fruit is also known as monkey-fruit or elephant-fruit for who knows what reason and in Sri Lanka and India it is often made into a juice or a fruit shake. (While we’ve been mostly discussing Southeast Asian fruits on this list, we’ve only ever seen the wood apple in Sri Lanka.)
If you can get past the awful taste, however, apparently the wood apple is believed to have many health benefits, from relieving diarrhoea and dysentery to curing sore throats and gum diseases! The leaves, bark, roots and pulp of this unusual tropical fruit are even believed to help neutralise venomous snake bite wounds!
Top Tip: Didn’t you read the title of this article? AVOID!
This guy seems to like it anyhow… Would you be daring enough to try the wood apple?
What weird fruits have you tried in Asia? Share your thoughts with us in the comments…