The Place: Exotic lychee-like fruit rambutan, sheathed in a hairy red shell, is available at Wal-Mart, Whole Foods and Fresh Market imported from Guatemala and Honduras by HLB Specialties.
The History: HLB was founded by the Barros family, who emigrated from Brazil to Germany in 1989 to start a fruit-importing company bringing papayas to Europe. They moved to South Florida in 1998 to establish their company here and now also distribute mangoes, avocados, limes, physalis (golden berries) and rambutan flown in daily just after they are harvested. They focus on fruits from tropical regions in Colombia, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. In the 19th century, the Dutch brought rambutan from their colony in Indonesia to their Surinam colony in South America, where it spread throughout the continent and to Central America. The fruit is in season May to January and available now.
The Fruit: Rambutan are native to the Malayan archipelago and grow on a medium-sized tree in the family Sapindaceae (soapberry) that includes maple, horse chestnut, lychee and longan. The fruit is a single-seeded three-inch berry that grows in clusters of 10-20 with leathery dark-to-bright-red skins covered in spines. The flesh or aril is translucent and white or pale-pink when ripe with a sweet, mildly acidic flavor similar to a green grape crossed with a lychee with a firm chewy texture. There is one central almond-shaped bitter seed — the oil from it is used to make soap, so don’t eat it. To crack the outer shell, make a small incision with a knife or fingernail in the equator of the fruit and pry open by hand with your thumb, peeling away the skin with your fingers. Hold the fruit and nibble off the succulent flesh discarding the seed. Rambutan taste best chilled and are juicy and refreshing. Peeled and pitted ones can be added to tossed green salads or fruit salads and are great frozen to enjoy as an icy treat.
You Didn’t Know This: In Central America rambutan are called mamon chino, meaning “Chinese suckers,” because you can pop the whole peeled fruit in your mouth and suck the flesh from the pit. The name of the fruit comes from the Malay word rambu meaning hair, reflecting their hairy looking pliable spines on the outside of the fruit. In Vietnam they are called chom chom meaning “messy hair.”
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To Purchase: 12-ounce packages are sold at Wal-Mart for $3.99 and at Whole Foods for $4.99. Also available until December in bulk at Fresh Market. Contact importers HLB Foods at 954-475-8808 or at hlbspecialties.com