One thing I miss about living in Hong Kong and frequently traveling throughout Southeast Asia is the food. When I return to the region, I look forward to buying delicious Asian fruits at street markets and grocers that are hard to source at home.
The point of this list is to share the names of common and exotic Asian fruit you may encounter, what they taste like, and how to cut open and eat them.
This way, you’ll look like a pro and know which ones to reach for first (they often wind up in luxury hotel room fruit bowls — which I love).
You’ll also appreciate the effort that goes into preparing some of the more weird and unusual gems when you see them on restaurant menus. These are in no particular order but I saved the very best for last.
Native to Southeast Asia, pomelo looks like a large, oversized grapefruit (reaching 6-10″ in diameter) but it tastes a little bit sweeter and milder than a grapefruit.
Like other citrus family members, it’s high in Vitamin C and has a thick outside rind that you peel off. Pomelo fruit peels apart in wedges like oranges, but each wedge is bigger and encased in a thick white pith.
It’s labor-intensive to peel pomelo to get to the fruit beneath the pith. This is why many grocery stores sell this Asian citrus fruit perfectly-peeled and in individual slices, exactly as pictured above. I recommend that you buy it peeled to save yourself the effort, if possible.
How to Peel a Pomelo
- Slice about 1/2″ of the stem end off until you start to see the flesh inside.
- Dig your fingernails into the pith and pull the skin off. Or, hold the pomelo with the cut end facing up. Take a knife down its sides to score vertical slices through the skin to make it easier to pull off.
- Peel all skin off of the fruit.
- The remaining fruit will remind you of a peeled grapefruit or orange. One end will have a dimple, and the other end will have a hole. Put your fingers in the hole to break apart the pomelo into slices.
- A membrane surrounds each slice. Unlike other citrus fruit, you’ll need to peel the membrane off, too. It helps to cut the edge of the membrane that runs along the long side of the slice that would normally face the fruit’s core. This cut makes it easier to peel the membrane off cleanly. If you try to go for it, you could be peeling for ages.
Do you see why it’s better to spend a few extra dollars to buy peeled pomelo? You’ll want to do the same for our next exotic fruit.
Native to South Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, jackfruit is actually the national fruit of Bangladesh. It’s also the largest fruit in the world. It can reach up to 40″ in length and weigh up to 50lbs. In the markets, you’ll usually see it in more manageable sizes so that one could actually carry it home.
A notably aromatic and exotic fruit, the flesh is starchy and fibrous and tastes like a combination of apple, mango, pineapple, and banana.
Jackfruit is eaten in many different ways across the Indian Subcontinent, including on its own (or alongside a bowl of rice), dried and eaten as candy, or even as part of curry because it’s often used as a substitute for meat. It’s believed to have health benefits like anti-aging properties and also helps lower blood pressure.
You’ll have to slice through the odd, spiky exterior to get to the fruit flesh, which is in pockets surrounding seeds. Its exterior is oily, so it’s best to handle a jackfruit with gloves on. Even its sap can ruin good knives.
So, it’s not exactly a fruit that you’d bring back to a hotel room or eat on the side of the road. I’ll tell you how to open one though, so you can appreciate peeled jackfruit.
How to Open a Jackfruit
It takes some expertise to know when jackfruit is ripe. Its exterior will need to have a little bit of give in it and have turned from green to yellow with brown spots. You’ll notice the sweet bubblegum smell. Knock on the spiky skin, and it will also sound a little bit hollow.
Once you feel it meets the ripe test, it’s time to cut it. The core of the jackfruit, similar to the core of a pineapple, is inedible. You’ll read several methods for how to peel a jackfruit, and I think this one is the best for newbies because it contains mess a little better than others, in my experience. (Experienced street market vendors hack into a whole jackfruit with far fewer steps. Practice makes perfect.)
- Grab your longest, sturdiest knife. I think a solid serrated knife works best.
- Grab a cutting board. Make sure it and the surface below it can handle thick sap. You may want to put a big paper bag or plastic wrap under your cutting surface to catch the sap.
- Wear gloves to protect your hands from sap (many people I know skip this step).
- Rub grapeseed or another mildly-flavored oil on the knife. This will help it resist sap while you’re cutting.
- Lay the jackfruit on its side. Make the first cut a roughly 2′ slice off the bottom.
- Then proceed to slice it into 2″ rounds.
- Cut out the white round core from each round.
- Cut one side of the round so that you can open it to create a straight line with the spiky fruit rind. The yellow pods can be pulled off the rind.
- The soft smoother-looking yellow pod that surrounds a seed is the edible portion. Pull the seeds out and save the pod.
You will have a lot of leftover waste.
3. Wax Apples
Native to the Malay Peninsula and surrounding islands, wax apples grow on tall trees and are shaped like a bell. The cotton candy-like nest at the inside center tastes like a pear.
It looks like it’s made out of wax, hence its name, but also referred to as rose apples, water apples, mountain apples, love apples, Java apple, Semarang rose-apple, and wax jambu.
This Asian fruit is put in salads or lightly sautéed and is also used to cure diarrhea. They’re usually about the height of a medium-sized apple, but much skinnier.
How to Eat a Wax Apple
Eat wax apples just like any other garden variety apples or pears. Slice or bite around the core of seeds to enjoy.
From the southern Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, the lychee is the most popular of Asian fruits. It grows on an evergreen tropical fruit tree that bears small fruits, about 1″ wide, with a red-colored, rough-textured, and inedible outside skin.
The inside is a lovely white flesh that is commonly used in desserts. This Chinese fruit is typically eaten fresh and rich in vitamin C. While it’s widely sold in cans, the canning process robs the fruit of much of its signature flavor. I also feel that the liquid in the can is sweetened with sugar — a completely unnecessary step. I consider fresh lychee a must-try.
Lychee martinis are also quite good. (My favorite martini in the world is the lychee martini at Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong‘s Blue Bar.)
It’s important to pick the right lychee because they do not continue to ripen after being picked. Typically, they’ll be a vibrant pink-orange-red shade, like in the photos above, and about the size of an apricot.
How to Peel a Lychee
Peeling lychee is similar to peeling an orange because no tools are required. Pierce the thin red skin with your fingernail. Then you’ll be able to quickly peel the skin off to reveal the pale pink fruit inside.
Pierce the flesh of the fruit (similar to an apricot) to extract the large seed inside. After removing the seed, you can pop the entire lychee into your mouth.
From Indonesia and Malaysia, the fruit of the rambutan tree is related to the lychee but slightly bigger because of the hair. The name rambutan is derived from the word for hair in local languages.
The unpeeled rambutan fruit skin is red (like lychee), but the rambutan is also covered in distinct red, spiny hairs. The hairs are actually green on the tree, and they turn red a few days after being picked.
Inside, the fruit has an off-white (or maybe pinkish) color and tastes like grapes. It’s commonly eaten raw and rich in fiber, Vitamin C, and other nutrients,
How to Peel and Eat a Rambutan
A rambutan’s skin is thicker than lychee skin, so it helps to score it with a pairing knife. Then, you can continue to peel it off with your fingers. It also has a brown seed inside that you’ll need to remove before eating this Asian fruit. If it’s difficult to remove, eat around the seed and then spit it out.
Notorious for its off-putting, rotten smell once cut open, durian’s name derives from the Malay word for spike. This is a reference to the spiky, green/brown outside of the fruit, which grows to nearly the size of a basketball.
Because of its infamous smell, the so-called “King of Fruits” has been banned from some public places in Asia, including the Singapore subway system.
The truth is that despite being a smelly Asian fruit, durian is actually quite sweet (it tastes like a creamy mix of mostly sweet with a little bit of sour) and delicious if you give it a chance. Durian is used to make candy, milkshakes, ice cream, and even cappuccinos, but is also eaten raw with sticky rice, especially in Thailand.
Similar to people who like the most extremely spicy foods or hot sauces, personally, I’ve found people who like durian to be very proud of their affection for the fruit and to have a tendency to want to flaunt it.
Why does durian smell so badly? Scientists have learned that it’s the weird fruit’s mixture of over 50 chemicals.
How to Open a Durian
I’m not entirely sure why I’m sharing this because cutting durian open isn’t for the faint of heart. Like jackfruit, knowing when it’s ripe is half the battle. You’ll need the stem actually to smell like durian… if it’s a faint aroma, it’s probably not ripe. If you shake durian, it should rattle a little but not too much. If you hear nothing, the fruit is already bad. The exterior should be firm and not mushy.
- Look for its bottom, like oranges have a bottom. On durian, it will be where you see the spikes form a star pattern.
- Grab a sturdy knife and shove it into the center of this star, the core of the fruit. You’ll need to wiggle the knife side to side, slowly as you cut into the durian to try to force the core of the fruit to split it into two halves.
- You should now see some edible pods that are darker than the rest of the flesh. Pry these out with your fingers or a knife and discard the rest.
7. Asian Pear
The Asian pear is known by many names, including Chinese pear, Japanese pear, and Korean pear. The East Asian tree on which this fruit grows is a common symbol of early spring.
Because they have higher water content and a grainier texture than the pear type familiar to Americans and Europeans, Asian pears are most commonly eaten fresh versus being baked into pies or made into jams.
Blemish-free, perfectly-round Asian pears can be relatively expensive. These prized gems are typically given as gifts, eaten on special occasions, and cushioned by foam in grocery stores to protect their round shape and flesh. Prices are reasonable for shoppers who are not concerned about appearance. They are also easily sourced in the United States at Asian grocers.
How to Eat an Asian Pear
Eat Asian pears, just like any other pear or apple. They have a slim core with seeds that you’ll bite or cut around. Because of their size, I have a hard time finishing a whole pear in one sitting.
Originating on certain Indonesian islands, the (inedible) purple-colored rind of the fruit of the mangosteen tree encases a sweet, tangy white fibrous fruit that looks a little like citrus fruits. It tastes like a mix of tropical fruits — lychee with hints of peach, banana, strawberry, and vanilla.
Mangosteens are high in antioxidants and are thought to have anti-inflammatory effects in humans. They’re also low in calories.
Opened with a knife, the white fruit inside is commonly eaten raw, though it is also canned and dried.
How to Open a Mangosteen
Take a paring knife and score the rind in an orbit all the way around the center of the fruit, careful not to damage the flesh. Split the fruit into two halves. You can pressure the center of the mangosteen with your hands in a circle around its printer to try to split it apart that way.
Longan is from the same family as the lychee and the rambutan. The name of this Chinese fruit is Cantonese for dragon eye, which references how it resembles an eye when cut in half.
The rind and the black, eye-like seed at the center are not edible. Only the translucent white fruit is typically eaten raw. It tastes mildly like lychee but is a little less juicy. Longan is also used in soups and desserts.
How to Peel a Longan
Create a break in the small brown Asian fruit skin with a toothpick, knife, or your fingernail. The skin peels off quickly. Pop out the seed before eating (or spit it out).
Taiwan is the world’s premier grower of guavas and can produce the savory, exotic fruit with a green exterior and pink or white interior year-round.
Different varieties and colors of guavas are grown in other parts of the world, including red guavas in Mexico (which are also much smaller), and eaten in different ways. They can be sweet or sour.
The best macaron I ever ate was a pink and green guava macaron at the Cake Shop inside Mandarin Oriental, Taipei. If in the area, you must try one.
When guava is ripe, it will smell sweet and it will be slightly soft when you press on the skin.
How to Eat Guava
The entire guava is edible. So, simply cut it into slices and enjoy.
11. Lotus Fruit
Native to the tropics of Asia and Australia, many parts of the sacred lotus have been eaten for centuries, including the roots and flowers. Roots are commonly boiled or pickled.
The pod at the center of the flower, which resembles a watering can head, has seed-like fruits in each hole that are also edible raw.
How to Eat Lotus Fruit
Take the lotus fruit in your hand and break it so that it’s easier to pop out the seeds (these are the “watering can holes” or “little eyeballs,” as my daughter calls them. Score the skin of the seeds with your fingernail and peel it off to reveal the edible fruit. It has more of a nutty flavor than a sweet flavor.
12. Sugar Apple
Native to the American tropics and the West Indies, the sugar apple was brought to Asia by Spanish explorers. It’s prevalent in markets.
The leafy, green exterior of the fruit looks a little like an artichoke or turtle shell. The creamy white interior flesh (encasing inedible black seeds) tastes like custard, which is also why it’s also referred to as a custard apple.
How to Eat a Sugar Apple
When it’s ripe, deeper cracks will start to form in between its bumps. Place your thumbs in the cracks and pull it open. You’ll see soft little fruit pods inside that look sort of like peeled garlic cloves.
13. Chinese Bayberry (or Waxberry)
The wax myrtle is a subtropical tree grown for its red/purple fruit covered with hundreds of pinhead-sized bumps called waxberries, Chinese bayberries, yumberries, or yang mei. This Chinese fruit’s interior flesh is also red with a sweet flavor and tart taste with a single seed in the center.
Commonly eaten raw, the waxberry fruit is also dried, canned, and fermented into an alcoholic beverage. These exotic fruits are often used in China for medicinal purposes because they are thought to relieve pain and serve as an anti-inflammatory.
How to Eat Waxberries
They are ripe when they’re maroon in color. You do not need to peel waxberries. Eat or cut around the center seed, sort of like a plum.
Native to the Philippines, the Indian Subcontinent, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka, the oblong fruit with a yellow exterior (when ripe) has several irregular, leaf-like ridges extending from it lengthwise.
When cut in cross-sections, these ridges give the fruit its distinctive, namesake star shape. The fruit is entirely edible raw, even the thin, waxy outer skin.
Starfruit is also placed in preserves and juice drinks. Starfruit has a tart, sour taste with a texture that I think is closest to mild grapes.
They are a dream for garnishing fruit salads, drinks, desserts, and more but difficult to find (at least in San Diego) as fresh and tasty as they usually are in Asia.
How to Eat a Star Fruit
The entire fruit is edible. It’s most decorative to slice it in its star shape prior to serving on its own or with other fruit. It’s a marvelous garnish, too, in infused waters and cocktails.
Rare outside of Southeast Asia, the pulasan fruit is typically eaten raw and tastes sweeter even than the lychee or rambutan.
Like lychee, the outside rind is red, bumpy (or hairy as some say), and encases a sweet, white edible fruit inside. The pulasan tree is also ornamental.
This exotic fruit is thought to help control blood sugar and its high fiber content is thought to assist with weight loss by making you feel full.
How to Eat Pulasan
No tools are necessary. Use your fingers to twist open the hairy skin which separates fairly easily from the fruit. You can also eat the seed which has a nutty flavor.
Resembling an orange but much smaller (like a large olive), the kumquat is Cantonese for golden orange. Kumquat shrubs are native to South Asia and have been cultivated in the region for hundreds of years. The shrub is also ornamental and used as auspicious decor for Chinese New Year.
It’s one of the most popular Chinese fruits because of its unique mix of sweet and sour. The sour comes from the rind and the seeds.
How to Eat a Kumquat
The oval kumquat fruit is eaten raw in its entirety though some cut them in half to remove the seeds, which also have a bitter flavor. You can gently roll it in your fingers to help release its aroma.
In contrast, the round kumquat’s fruit, a similar but different varietal, is mainly used to make marmalades and jellies.
Breadfruit grows on a tropical tree in the mulberry and jackfruit family. Its name is derived from the fruit’s texture and taste when cooked, like baked bread with a potato taste.
Originally from New Guinea and Indonesia/Malaysia, the tree’s timber is also commonly used to build ships and houses in the region. Green and slightly spiky/bumpy on the outside and white inside, the fruit is roasted, boiled, or fried and then eaten. You can eat it raw, though, and use it in dishes that would call for potatoes.
Breadfruit is also very popular in Hawaii (where it is called Ulu) and can weigh up to 12 lbs. It’s actually quite nutritious with a decent amount of protein in addition to vitamins.
How to Open a Breadfruit
You want the breadfruit skin to have turned from green to yellow. Green breadfruit still has a sap-like milky liquid that can be messy and irritating.
Grab a sharp knife and cut the breadfruit in half. Then cut those halves in half and repeat until you can safely use the knife to cut out the brown core and peel off the outer skin.
If you don’t store cut breadfruit in water, it will oxidize and turn brown, sort of like an avocado.
18. Dragon Fruit
Dragon fruit actually hails from the Americas, where it is called pitaya, but it is incredibly popular in Asia. It’s prevalent in fruit bowls, breakfast buffets, and even in ice cream over there. Dragon fruit is not a very sweet fruit and tastes like a mild kiwi but with usually a crunchier texture and far more tiny black seeds.
This exotic fruit is a superfood for its high antioxidant content and variety of health benefits. It’s grown on a cactus, which is why it’s become more common in the United States.
How to Eat Dragon Fruit
I lay the dragon fruit on its side and slice it into rings. Then, the pink outer skin peels off easily as I eat it.
You can also slice it in half and dig out the fruit flesh with a spoon. People do not eat the skin.
Santol is among the tropical fruits native to Southeast Asia referred to as wild mangosteen or cotton fruit that comes in a yellow or red variety. The inner lobes that cover the seeds have a spongy, cotton-like texture and taste sweet. However, sour unripened santol is often eaten with salt in Thailand and the Philippines.
It’s one of the weird fruits on this list because you need to be incredibly careful to avoid eating the (usually) three to five seeds inside. Why? Long story short, they can cause severe abdominal issues. As your body tries to digest the seeds, they become very pointed and sharp.
Oddly enough, santol fruit is thought to flush allergens from the body.
How to Eat Santol
The peel is inedible, so you need to cut the santol to get to the fruit inside. You can cut it in wedges like an apple or peel the skin off to eat it like an apple until you get to the seeds.
Another gem native to Southeast Asia, langsat comes in several varieties also known as lanzones, duku, or longkong. It’s grown in clusters, like grapes, on a tree in the mahogany family.
Inside the skin awaits a translucent flesh divided into sections like an orange. Duku langsat is sweeter, but the rest taste similar to grapefruit.
Some parts of the plant are used to make traditional medicines for various ailments ranging from scorpion stings to malaria.
How to Eat Langsat
Peel the skin off, like an orange. Pull apart the interior sections to eat them while avoiding the three to five seeds.
Mangos are the national fruit of India, Haiti, and the Philippines. You also can not visit Thailand without enjoying a good mango drink or sticky rice and mango dessert. There are many varieties now of different shapes, levels of sweetness, textures, and skin colors. And, while they’re prevalent around the world, they are particularly delicious in East Asia.
Ripe mangoes have an outer skin that has turned from green to yellow or red hues. They’re soft without being mushy when you press on them are soft on the inside with a silky sweet flavor that can be flowery or citrusy, depending on the version.
How to Eat a Mango
The trick to eating a mango is cutting it properly. They have a large flat seed in the middle that you need to cut around.
Lay the fruit on its side so that if you were to cut the left or the right of the seed, you’d have separated most of the fruit from the seed. As you cut into the mango, you’ll start to feel the seed and be able to glide the knife along its edge.
Take the two halves and score them into slices or cubes without piercing the skins, like in the photo above. Flip the skin inside out. The mango should release from the skin with a little help from a spoon or knife.
22. Snake Fruit
Fruit from the Salak tree, a palm tree species, is called salak fruit or snake fruit, thanks to its scaley skin that looks like it belongs to a snake. When you bite into it, you get a sweet like honey taste plus a tart citrus-like flavor at the same time. They’re about the size of a fig.
Health benefits include a high beta carotene content compared to most fruits and people use it as an aid for indigestion.
How to Eat Snake Fruit
This is one of the Asian fruits that doesn’t require any tools to open. Pinch the pointy top of the fruit to create a break in the skin. It should peel easily from here. You’ll see three lobes of edible flesh that surround an inedible seed.
23. Japanese Persimmon
I am half-Japanese, so persimmons have been a big part of my life. I also look forward to the persimmon season in Asia because persimmon desserts, bread, and fresh fruit are celebrated in abundance. This Asian varietal is native to Japan, China, and Korea, but other persimmons are native to Europe and the Americas.
My favorite is the Japanese persimmon because it’s denser (less watery), sweeter, and easier to eat raw on its own or in salads. They’re loaded with nutrients and fiber.
How to Eat a Persimmon
The entire persimmon is edible. Most people eat or cut around the leafy top. There’s no core to avoid or seeds to pick out. I like to slice it in thin rounds to eat in salads. They’re also delicious eaten fresh when paired with cheeses like brie on toast.
24. Passion Fruit
Passion fruit is so common in Asia that you’d think it’s from there. It’s actually from Africa. Good ones are not common in Southern California grocery stores. So, I didn’t really appreciate them until we moved to Hong Kong, where they are readily available in yellow or maroon versions. Passion fruit can taste tart with a little bit of sweetness complimented by a pretty floral aroma. They are very commonly used in desserts.
You’ve probably seen plenty of passion fruit vines, though. Many people grow them for their exotic-looking flowers when they have space for the vines to climb.
How to Eat Passion Fruit
Passion fruit is ripe when it’s just a little bit dimpled or wrinkled. It will have changed from green to yellow or purple in color — green passion fruit is never ripe. If it’s really wrinkled, it’s probably too old. The skin should still be firm with a little give in it without being soft.
Cut the passion fruit in half. The skin can be tough, so a serrated or sharp paring knife works best. Use a spoon to scoop out the sweet sacs filled with juice and crunchy edible seeds, which you will eat. The white part below the seeds is bitter, so don’t scoop too hard. Discard the rest of the fruit.
25. Crazy Expensive Watermelon
If you have the opportunity to step into a high-end grocer, especially in Singapore, Hong Kong, or Japan, wander into the fruit section. You will likely find the most beautiful, blemish-free, perfectly-packaged, and unusual Asian fruits and vegetables that do not even look real.
The appearance of the fruit can be as important as the flavor to some households. In particular, the Japanese go to great lengths to cultivate new, exciting, and very expensive fruits. I’ve paid a pretty penny for gigantic white strawberries and beautiful Hokkaido melons at our Hong Kong grocery store to see what the fuss is about. Needless to say, they were delicious, but these two melons below are next level.
Our Hong Kong grocery store was city s’uper, and I have seen plenty of square watermelons with roughly USD 200+ price tags. They’re imported from Japan, where they’re grown in square containers.
You can also purchase pyramid watermelons for significantly more, north of USD 750. Yes, there is a market for this. What do you give the business associate or person in your life who has everything? Really expensive fruit works for this.
In addition to shape, which takes years for growers to perfect, these shaped watermelons are reputed to be sweeter than traditional varieties.
But the crème de la crème is the Densuke Watermelon, grown exclusively in (you guessed it) Hokkaido, Japan. I have never seen one in person but very much would like to. The very first of these black watermelon was auctioned off for a princely USD 6100 in 2008.
Prices depend on the season’s yield which doesn’t often crest 10,000. The average price though is about USD 250, significantly more for larger and blemish-free melons.
(I’m not really even scratching the surface when it comes to Japanese melons. Regular watermelon is incredibly popular in Hong Kong and China. In fact, one of the things we look forward to most during our visits is a good glass of strained watermelon juice.)
What are your favorite exotic Asian fruits?