If rambutan, a fruit indigenous to Indonesia, ever becomes popular, it will probably be known as “hairy fruit.” That’s the meaning of the name rambutan – and an apt description as well. The red fruit is related to the lychee, and looks like a ball of messy, fibrous hair. Inside the somewhat chaotic-looking exterior, a luscious treat awaits. Is rambutan delicious? You bet it is. This little wonder will take you by surprise.
I just returned from Malaysia and Borneo, where rambutan is currently in season. At roadside stands, rambutan sells in big piles. My friends and I bought the fruits in big bags, and made quite a mess in our van, eating as we drove. At Kuala Lumpur’s famous outdoor Chow Kit market, rambutan is everywhere. The fruit, which grows on an evergreen tree, is widely cultivated throughout all of Southeast Asia as well as in parts of Africa and the Caribbean. As with apples, there are many cultivars of rambutan – over 200 – but fewer that are grown on a large commercial scale.
Rambutan enjoys a history of use not only as a delicious and succulent fruit, but also as a traditional medicine. The fruit has long been used to quell dysentery, while the rind contains a variety of beneficial compounds that demonstrate antioxidant and anti-cancer properties. Compounds responsible for this include the ellagitannins and xanthones. Additionally, some research shows that the hulls of rambutans contain several compounds that demonstrate value in inhibiting fatty acid synthase. These findings, published in the journal Carbohydrate Research, suggest that an extract of rambutan hulls could be a potentially effective anti-obesity aid.
From a nutritional standpoint, rambutan is a good source of natural sugars, potassium, calcium and magnesium. It is a modest source of fiber, and contains several B vitamins.
Rambutan is not an antioxidant heavyweight on a par with acai or pomegranate. But it does offer something extraordinary, in terms of consistency and flavor. The consistency of the fruit is slippery and juicy. Eating rambutans can be somewhat messy, because when they are fully ripe, the fruits can squirt a little when opened. True rambutan devotees do not care, just as lovers of ripe peaches favor their juiciness. The flavor is another matter altogether. Moderately sweet, similar to lychee and somewhat floral, the fruits win over most new tasters on the spot. I have introduced many people to rambtan, and they marvel at the fruit, asking why they haven’t known of it before.
Most rambutan fruits are red, yet there are yellow varieties too. The difference between them appears to be the variations in antioxidant pigments in the skins, as the inner fruits remain pretty much the same color. Rambutans are pollinated by various flies, bees and ants, and ripen only on the tree. Once picked, they do not ripen further.
In Southeast Asia, honey made from the nectar of rambutan is considered a special treat. In that region, the fruits are often packed and sold in cans, in addition to being available fresh in local markets. The fruit is also made into jams and jellies. These products are delightfully flavorful.
That’s the real key to rambutan: the flavor. Sure, the fruit is nutritious enough. But it isn’t going to be the next goji, or black currant, and nobody is going to hail it as the most potent source of antioxidants, though it contains them. But from a taste standpoint, rambutan is hard to beat.
As farmers cultivate rambutan from Sri Lanka to Puerto Rico, they are counting primarily on the sweet, succulent flavor of rambutan to win the day. It is a great pleasure to eat. Call it rambutan, or just hairy fruit, this gem from the east is poised to show up in household fruit bowls from sea to shining sea.
Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France.