One thing I miss about living in Asia is the fruit. Not all Asian fruits can be sourced here in the United States and the rarer types never taste as good after a long journey over the Pacific.
If you happen to be headed to Asia, many of these delicious gems will appear in fruit bowls placed inside rooms at luxury hotels and, of course, be sold in a variety of street markets and grocers.
After a scroll through this list, you’ll know which Asian fruits to reach for first (yes, some of them are weird).
From Southeast Asia, pomelo looks like a large, oversized grapefruit and tastes like a sweeter, more mild version of the same. It is my daughter’s favorite fruit and she eats tons of it when we return to Hong Kong or anywhere else in Asia where it’s readily available.
Like other members of the citrus family, it has a thick outside rind that you peel off to get to the fruit. Once you’ve ripped into it though, it’s even easier to peel off in its entirety than an orange (or grapefruit) rind. The fruit itself peels apart in wedges like an orange, but each wedge is bigger and encased in a thick white pith that can be removed, too, to reveal only the fruit. The labor-intensive peeling of pomelo is why many grocery stores sell this Asian citrus fruit perfectly-peeled and in individual slices, exactly as pictured above.
Native to South Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, jackfruit is actually the national fruit of Bangladesh. 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 many different ways across the Indian Subcontinent, including on its own (or alongside a bowl of rice), or dried and eaten as candy, or even as part of a curry. You’ll have to slice through the odd, spiky exterior to get to the flesh, which is in pockets surrounding seeds. Its exterior is oily so it’s best to handle a jackfruit with gloves on.
Native to the Malay Peninsula and surrounding islands, wax apples grow on tall trees and grows into a bell shape, with a cotton candy-like nest at the inside center that tastes like a pear. This Asian fruit is put in salads or lightly sautéed, and is also used as a cure for diarrhea. Wax apples are also often called rose apples, water apples, mountain apples, love apples and a handful of other names.
From the southern Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, the lychee is the most popular of Asian fruits and an evergreen tree that bears small fruits whose outside is red colored, rough textured and inedible. Inside is a very sweet white flesh that is commonly used in desserts. This Chinese fruit is typically eaten fresh and rich in vitamin C. While lychee is widely sold in cans, the canning process robs the fruit of much of its signature flavor. 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.)
From Indonesia and Malaysia, the fruit of the rambutan tree is related to the lychee. The name rambutan is derived from the word for hair in local languages. The unpeeled rambutan fruit skin is red (like a lychee) but the rambutan is also covered in distinct red, spiny hairs. Inside, the fruit has an off-white (or maybe pinkish) color and tastes like grapes. It’s commonly eaten raw.
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 can be used as an ingredient in candy, milkshakes, ice cream and even in a cappuccino, 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 (including four they’d never seen before).
Known by many names in addition to Asian pear, including Chinese pear and Japanese pear and Korean pear (as there are many types of Asian pears), the East Asian tree on which this fruit grows is a common symbol of early Spring in the region. Because they have a higher water content and a grainier texture than the type of pear familiar to Americans and Europeans, the Asian pear is commonly eaten raw and not baked into pies or made into jams. Because it’s relatively expensive, Asian pears are typically given as gifts, eaten on special occasions and cushions by foam in grocery stores.
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. Opened with a knife, the white fruit inside is commonly eaten raw; though it is also canned and dried.
From the same family as the lychee and the rambutan, The name is Cantonese for dragon eye, which references how the lychee-like fruit resembles an eye when the yellowish rind encasing it is removed. The rind and the black, eye-like seed at the center are not edible. Only the translucent white fruit is eaten and is typically eaten raw. It is also used in soups and desserts.
Taiwan is the world’s premier grower of guavas and able to produce the savory exotic fruit with a green exterior and pink interior year-round. These Asian guavas are typically cut into quarters and eaten raw. Other 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.
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, go get one.
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. Rip open the head, pop the seeds out and peel away their green husk to reveal the fruit.
Native to the American tropics and the West Indies, the sugar-apple was brought to Asia by Spanish explorers. The leafy, green exterior of the fruit looks a little like an artichoke. The creamy white interior flesh (encasing black seeds –not eaten) tastes like custard.
Chinese Bayberry (or Waxberry)
A subtropical tree grown for its red/purple fruit covered with hundreds of pinhead-sized bumps. The interior flesh of this Chinese fruit is a similar color with a sweet and tart taste with a single seed. Commonly eaten raw, the waxberry fruit is also dried, canned and fermented into an alcoholic beverage.
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 exterior skin.
Starfruit is also placed in preserves and juice drinks. Starfruit has a tart, sour taste with a texture that I personally think is closest to that of 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.
Rare outside Southeast Asia, the pulasan fruit is typically eaten raw and is sweeter even than the lychee or rambutan. Like the lychee, the outside rind is red and bumpy and encases a sweet, white edible fruit inside. The pulasan tree is also ornamental.
Resembling an orange but much smaller (like a large olive), kumquat is Cantonese for golden orange. Kumquat shrubs are native to South Asia and have been cultivated in the region for many hundreds of years. The oval kumquat fruit is eaten raw in its entirety though some peel the skin of first. In contrast, the fruit of the round kumquat, a similar but different varietal, is mainly used to make marmalades and jellies. The shrub is also ornamental and used as auspicious decor for Chinese New Year.
The fruit of a tree in the mulberry and jackfruit family, the name is derived from the texture and taste of the fruit when cooked, which is 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. It is also very popularly eaten in Hawaii,.
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. This exotic fruit is known as a superfood for its variety of health benefits. I simply slice it in rings and peel the skin off as I eat it. It’s not a very sweet fruit (many liken it to a mild kiwi) and has tiny black seeds in it.
What is your favorite Asian fruit?
Going to Asia soon? Check out this Hong Kong Disneyland insiders guide!