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Tropical Fruit (May 13, 2010)

by Sheila Swerling-Puritt

It's easy to be dismayed with the food large numbers of people are eating these days. Junk food consumption is reaching epidemic proportions, but folks who eat their fruits and veggies are hearing lots of bad news about what's in (or on) the imported produce in the market. China and even California have been tarred with that brush, leaving diehard herbivores to look for secure sources of healthy foods.

Thanks to NAFTA, the USA and Mexico seem to get the lion's share of imports into Canada. It's worked out well for us, giving us, for the most part, reliable goodies on the shelf. Who grows sweeter watermelons than Mexico? And if you prefer your fruit seedless, no problem. Those varieties are regularly supplied by producers in Arizona and Texas.

Brazil has become a serious contender in the fruit export industry. It's not just the land of bikinis and cosmetic surgery any more! I have been buying Brazilian fruit for years and never suffered from any of my purchases. The stuff is delicious, exotic, and certified free of "grey water" germs and toxic chemicals.

On a recent tour of the northeast of Brazil, I saw first-hand the life of a melon destined for export, from where and how it was grown to how it was packed and shipped to Canada.

I was impressed with the great care with which the fruit was treated. It was washed carefully, and the workers in the plant wore special clothing and gloves to ensure absolute hygiene. After receiving organic certification, the melons were kept in refrigerated rooms until shipped.

Bananas are still the number one purchase. They stand out for being a fruit that can be quickly digested and are rich in fibre, potassium and vitamins. And yes, we still eat the fruit underripe, before the skin is flecked with brown spots.

I spoke with produce buyers from across Canada to find out what tropical fruit has gained in popularity of the past few years. Tony DiMarco, who has been buying tropical fruit for over 30 years for his Harvest Wagon stores in Ontario, told me that mangos imported from Mexico and Brazil are extremely popular with customers.

Here in the Great White North, folks have discovered that mangos are great in fruit salad or salads that contain poultry. They also complement pork dishes and can be grated or cubed while under-ripe and eaten with salt and pepper.

Mangos are oval and about the size of a large pear. The thin leathery skin of ripe mangos varies in colour according to the variety, from light yellow to a reddish or purplish tint. The flesh is sweet, juicy and golden yellow in colour and it contains a large flat pit. Tommy Atkins and Haden are the most popular varieties. They are usually sold firm and will need time to soften. Look for clear, unblemished, taut skins and an aromatic scent.

Leave mangos at room temperature for a few days, until the fruit yields to gentle pressure and gives off a heady, sweet, tropical aroma. Speckled fruit indicates advanced ripeness, not spoilage. Refrigerated mangos (only refrigerate when ripe) will last for a week or more.

Try growing a house plant from your mango pit.

Without a doubt the most popular and delicious papayas are the Hawaiian solo and sunrise and Brazilian red Amazon varieties. Their flavours are sweet and the interior colour alone makes you smile. With this variety, there's no need for lime juice to perk up their flavour.

Papaya contains anti-oxidant agents, such as beta-carotene, a high content of vitamin C, a series of minerals, such as potassium, magnesium and calcium, and very little sodium. It is also the fruit with the highest known level of alkalinity. Papayas contain the enzyme papain, which is an excellent meat tenderizer because it digests protein.

The skin of the papaya is very delicate and can be easily bruised, spoiling the fruit. When the fruit is unripe it is green and hard and then, little by little, the colour changes to yellow or light orange in splotches, until it completely loses any traces of green.

Papays are great in salads, fruit kebabs, salsas, and breakfast drinks.

When the papaya is sliced open to be consumed, the seeds are connected by fibres to the inside of the pulp and are found in large quantities. They are small and shiny black and even though the seeds are often discarded they are edible. They are often dried to use as you would crushed black pepper.

The larger varieties of papaya can be used as a vegetable while still green and hard. Bake or cook them like squash.

One hears that a good Crenshaw or cranshaw melon is probably the most delicious melon in the world. While in Brazil I had the opportunity to taste Pele de sapo (frog skin) melons, which resemble an elongated pumpkin. These beauties certainly don't take a back seat to any melon I have ever served. Right now they are being exported to Europe, but I look forward to their appearance next to the popular Galia which are now in our supermarkets.

Look for a well-shaped unbruised melon. Don't depend on squeezing the stem end, or you may be feeling the softness resulting from other customers' squeezing! There is no infallible method for choosing a great melon, as it always depends on the melon being harvested at the precise point when it has all its sugars, yet is not too ripe. If the melon is unripe it ends up tasting like a cucumber!

Keep melons at room temperature until ripe, then use or refrigerate for a day or two. Wrap melons in the refrigerator to prevent their ethylene gas from affecting other foods.

Cut in half or cut wedges from the melon, removing the seeds only from the portion you are going to eat. Melons are best when eaten at room temperature or only slightly chilled.

Spanish melons are often served with prosciutto or smoked fish. Cut into cubes and sprinkle with sherry to use as a tapas.

The pomelo is rich in Vitamin C, contains some B vitamins, and is low in calories and sodium.

The pomelo is believed to be the ancestor of the grapefruit. It's the largest of all citrus fruits with a very thick aromatic rind and has a sweetish yellow or pink flesh, much sweeter and generally more coarsely textured than grapefruit.

Choose firm, not hard, pomelos, the heavier the better. If they are very light in weight, they won't be juicy. Avoid those that look dried out at the stem end.

They can be refrigerated for about a week, but are juiciest when eaten as fresh as possible

Eat the fruit fresh or use it to make juice. It's great in salads and the peel can be used to make candies.

Try heating pomelo segments for a minute or two, then flavour them with a splash of Pernod and honey.

Be adventurous! Just make sure that your fruit is properly ripe when you eat it – which reminds me of my biggest complaint about restaurants: they rush tropical fruit to the table, serving up great-looking slices of what taste like acid-treated styrofoam! We've all had an unwelcome surprise pucker from unripe tropical fruit here in North America, but I was surprised to find it in Brazilian restaurants as well. What a shame!

Here's my plea to restaurateurs: Please stop putting unripe fruit on your customer's plates! Green carambola (star fruit) may look pretty, but other than showing off the pruny faces of the diners, it tastes awful, as does unripe kiwi, or for that matter unripe strawberries. Teach your kitchen staff about what they serve, so they can help educate the diner. And an educated consumer is your best customer.

Tropical Chicken and Papaya Salad

Makes 4 servings

  • 1 ripe red papaya, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup (500 mL) diced, cooked chicken
  • 2 stalks celery, thinly sliced
  • 2 green onions (scallions) thinly sliced
  • 1 Tbsp (15 mL) lemon juice
  • ½ tsp (2 mL) grated lemon rind
  • ½ to 1 tsp (2 to 5 mL) West Indian curry powder
  • ½ tsp (2 mL) salt
  • Pinch pepper
  • Pinch sugar
  • ¼ cup (50 mL) dry white wine
  • ½ cup (125 mL) toasted sliced almonds
  • ½ cup (125 mL) plain yogurt

Toss chicken, celery, onions, lemon juice, lemon rind, curry powder, salt, pepper and sugar together. Stir in wine. Cover and chill 30 minutes to blend flavours.

Lightly toss mixture with papaya, almonds and yogurt. Serve in lettuce cups or scooped out papaya halves.


Papaya Pick-Me-Up

Makes 2 servings

  • ½ ripe red papaya, peeled, seeded and cut into chunks
  • ½ cup (125 mL) plain yogurt
  • ¾ cup (175 mL) milk or orange juice
  • 2 Tbsp (30 mL) honey
  • ¼ tsp (1 mL) vanilla
  • Dash of freshly grated nutmeg

Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth.


Thanks to Julia Richardson for allowing me to use some of her sources.


For more information, you can contact Sheila at




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