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Exotic Fruit : The Fruits of Home : Memories: Americans may crave the strawberries and peaches of summer, but people from tropical countries yearn for cherimoyas, tamarindos and the spiky fruit called durian.

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Sumptuous baskets of fruit: manga-espada, carlota, custard apple, and itiuba, manga-rosa, sapotes, sapodillas, hog plums, Malay apples, cashew fruit, Surinam cherries, jambos, Chinese gooseberries, 11 types of banana, and slices of pineapple and watermelon. “ --Jorge Amado, “The War of the Saints”

My friend Nancy Zubiri says that if she were asked to choose three foods before dying, one of them would be a mango.

But it wouldn’t be just any mango. Sweet Mexican mangoes are common in Los Angeles, but you cannot find the dozen or so varieties that abound in tropical climates. There is no place in Southern California where you can walk down streets lined with mango trees, where the fruit is so abundant that its smell permeates the air as it lies rotting on the ground because there’s just too much to go around.

And, says Zubiri, mangoes in Southern California just don’t taste like the ones in her native Peru.

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Nor like the ones in Brazil, says Lea Beatriz Zaguri. “We had so many types of mangoes,” she says wistfully, reminiscing about a variety called the Carlotinha , the “little Carlota,” which is “very, very small, very, very sweet and very, very juicy.”

In the Philippines, says Fay Cabanada, the mangoes grown in her family’s mango plantation were also “very, very juicy, but with little fiber, elongated and yellow,” but try as she might, she just can’t get them to grow the same way here.

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We all yearn for the foods we grew up with: Americans have a yen for freshly baked apple pie, Fourth of July corn on the cob, hamburgers on the grill. For those who grew up in other lands, the longing is often for those fruits that may have been taken for granted because of their abundance, but maddeningly enough, are difficult to find--if at all--in this country where everything else seems to be available.

“Strawberries, raspberries, nectarines and cherries, those were exotic to me when I was growing up,” says Tuni Szpiro, a Colombian who has lived in Los Angeles for eleven years.

“But now, do you know what I’d like the most? A jugo de lulo ( lulo shake), just blended, with all that green foam, like a green cappuccino. Ay, that would be heaven.”

But the tart lulo , greenish-yellow outside, pulpy green inside and used mostly for milk or water shakes, is impossible to find fresh in Los Angeles. It is also next to impossible to find the Javanese salak or snakeskin fruit, the Philippine lanzone , the Thai rambutan , or the Brazilian caju

“There were so many fruits over there,” says Ivan Tekawy, a Java native who runs Bali Place, a restaurant in West L.A. “Now I can’t remember them all anymore.”

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In an effort not to forget, people from other countries flock to ethnic markets and farmers markets throughout the area, sometimes finding fruits they thought they would never see again, but which, seemingly by some miracle, have appeared on the stands for one day.

More and more, fruits from other lands are showing up in regular markets-- cherimoya , passion fruit, pepino and feijoa , for instance. And when people don’t find the real thing, there are always frozen and canned fruits, which are imported liberally because they are free from insect infestation. But alas, they never taste quite as good.

The alternatives are better than none, but they are still a poor substitute for people like Steven Lam; he cherishes memories of his grandmother giving him fresh fruit after his daily afternoon naps in the sweltering heat of Vietnam.

Fruit, says 18-year-old Lam, a recent graduate of Santa Monica High School, is one of the reasons he goes back to Vietnam.

“The first thing I eat when I get home is fruit,” he says. “I love fruit. Every time I go back, I get off the plane and my grandparents have bought me a basket of litchi.”

Those are fresh litchi, of course, not the canned variety we’re used to getting at most Chinese restaurants. Real litchi has a pink thin shell that cracks easily to expose the whitish, grape-like fruit inside. It is sometimes available in Los Angeles in Asian markets, but its cousin, the smaller longan , almost never is.

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“We had a longan tree in our back yard (in Vietnam),” he says. “Actually, it wasn’t our tree, it was the neighbor’s, but the branches went over so we picked them,” he adds, laughing. “The skin is brown, and you don’t have to peel it, you just press it, and the fruit pops out and you suck it. My parents get it frozen in Little Saigon, but it’s nowhere compared to the fresh ones.”

Fortunately for Lam, his favorite fruit, the notorious durian, is found in Southern California. But one has to hurry to the Thai markets when a durian shipment comes in; they often sell out in a day, despite the fact that the big, spiky fruit--expensive in its native habitat--is outrageous here, costing up to $40 apiece.

Considered a delicacy in most Southeast Asian countries, durian is best known for its extremely pungent smell, so strong and--for many people--so offensive that in many Asian countries it is not allowed on trains and planes or in posh hotel rooms. But the smell is not a deterrent to its advocates, who swear by its custardy texture and peculiar taste, a mixture of sweet vanilla and cooked onions.

The heavy fruit, which is found throughout Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, grows in a tree similar to the elm and falls to the ground when ripe. This could be a problem for potential passers-by, who could get knocked unconscious by the force of a six-pound durian falling on their heads. Fortunately, says Lam, “My parents say durian falls only at night, so they don’t hurt anyone when they fall.”

Lam, of course, is a staunch durian fan whose mother regularly makes durian shakes for dinner (made with frozen durian pieces and milk) and who is amused when his American friends complain about the durian smell (“What is that?” they ask disgustedly when the Lam family buys fresh durian and loads it in the car).

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Paula Vaughn’s husband wasn’t so charitable. “The first time I bought fresh durian here and took it home, my husband freaked out,” says the Thailand native who now works in Los Angeles’ Bangluck Market. “He said it smelled like someone had died.” Durian used to be Vaughn’s favorite fruit, but now she finds it “too strong.”

Instead, she longs for fresh rambutan, the litchi-tasting fruit that on the outside looks like a hairy flower. “Last time I went to Thailand, I bought about four pounds and ate them in one day,” recalls Vaughn with a smile. Here she settles for the canned rambutan, sold in virtually all Asian markets, and as far as fresh fruit goes, she indulges in her other passion: green mango.

When I tell her that in Colombia green, tart mangoes are eaten with salt, she brightens up. In Thailand, she explains, green mango is eaten with different dips. One is a mixture of sugar, salt and red chile. The other, her favorite, is a mixture of fish sauce, chile, sugar, red onion and dried shrimp.

For a minute I think I’ve misunderstood. Fish sauce and sugar? It sounds pretty awful. “No, no,” she says. “Let me bring you some.”

Vaughn requests the dips from the little kitchen alongside the market, where she works as head cashier, and in a few minutes I have a plate full of sliced green mango and the two dips. I try it tentatively. They’re hot. They’re delicious. They’re even better than with just salt--and I tell her so.

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She smiles modestly. “We eat the green guava slices with the same dips,” she explains. “In Thailand, there are always little carts in the street that sell fruit and have the dips.”

Little fruit-vending carts, it seems, are the most common of sights in all tropical countries, regardless of the latitude.

In Colombia, that’s also where Tuni Szpiro would get her coconuts and green mangoes. “Coconuts here,” she states, “don’t taste like coconuts. The coconuts they sell in the streets back home, those are real coconuts!” But when she gets a craving for green mango, something that happened periodically during her pregnancy, she rushes to a local Thai market.

Szpiro has, in fact, scouted all the locations in the L.A. area where tropical fruits might be available, and she regularly finds one thing or another.

“When I first moved here, there were no fruits, but in the past three to five years, I’ve found guavas, feijoas (also known as pineapple guavas), cherimoyas and even guanabanas.

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The truth is, says Karen Caplan, president of Frieda’s Inc., a company that imports exotic fruit, many of those fruits that seem readily available only now have been around for more than 20 years. Frieda’s supplies major supermarkets with horned melon, feijoa , passion fruit, Asian pears and cherimoyas, among a huge selection of fruits, most of them imported from New Zealand.

One fruit she does not stock, however, is the guanabana , or soursop, a large cousin of the cherimoya, with similar texture and seeds, but with a much tarter flavor. This makes it a candidate for water- or milk-based shakes, or vitaminas , as they are known in Brazil. They’re jugos (juices) in Colombia, batidos in Cuba or simply licuados throughout most Latin American countries.

“In Colombia, jugos are an obligation,” says Szpiro. “Every day, you have fresh jugos , at all hours. Jugo de lulo , maracuya (passion fruit), mora (a cousin of the blackberry). All day long, that blender goes vroom , vroom !”

Although Szpiro can readily find her favorite jugo fruits, passion fruit and tamarillo , she never makes jugos with them. At $1 a pop for each tiny maracuya , a glass of juice is just too expensive. Instead, she eats them alone--they’re sweeter here than in Colombia, she says--and she looks for her juices in other places.

“What I’ve noticed is that in many of those smoothie stands at the beach or in the malls, they make our same jugos , only the fruits are different. I always ask them not to put in yogurt or ice cream, just milk or water, and they’re delicious.”

Lea Beatriz Zaguri, who grew up in Brazil drinking vitaminas --so called because they’re rich in vitamins--also finds that smoothies are a good substitute.

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“Here every morning I make shakes with banana and milk, pineapple or papaya,” she says. It’s her way of eating fruit at least once a day. “Of course,” she adds, “In Rio we eat fruit all the time. On every corner there’s a stand to make shakes, and all the fruits are placed against the wall. You pick your fruit and they make your vitamina .”

Her favorite is an avocado ( abacate ) smoothie, made with milk and sugar. An unlikely combination for many palates. “The first time I went to Mexico I asked for an abacate shake with sugar and they said ‘Are you crazy?’ ”

Her request is less likely to get laughed at in Los Angeles, where many Asian--especially Indonesian--restaurants serve avocado smoothies, mixed with coconut and sometimes jackfruit.

In the Philippines, halfway across the globe from Zaguri’s birthplace, Fay Cabanada also grew up on jackfruit and many of the same fruits as Zaguri, sometimes even calling them by the same name: the little siriguelas , which grow in very hot areas and must be eaten straight from the tree almost the minute they ripen; the anonas , which in Brazil is called fruta de conde , count’s fruit, and is similar to a cherimoya but has spiky skin; and the many types of mangoes and bananas.

While most people are content looking in stores for their favorite fruits, Cabanada has gone a step beyond: She grows fruit in her own back yard. “I try to look for fruits around here that are similar to the ones back home,” she says. “I have banana trees at my house . . . lemon trees, Santa Rosa plums, the big grapefruit we call pomelo and Japanese persimmon, although that isn’t from home.”

Her newly planted cherimoyas are not from home either, surprisingly enough. Cabanada discovered them in the States and eats them as a substitute for the similar-tasting apis , a cross between the sweetness of the cherimoya and the sourness of the sour-sop.

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Some fruits, however, have no substitute. “We have a fruit called lanzone , which grows in clusters. The skin is a bit thicker than a grape, and inside it’s white and translucent, like a small plum,” she explains. “I haven’t even seen them preserved here.”

There’s really nothing much you can do when you’re yearning for a fruit that can’t be found, except yearn some more or forget about it.

“I just don’t long for fruits here very much,” says Zaguri. “During the summer I do, but even then, not like back home. Maybe it’s because life and fruits are more sensual there.”

In “The War of the Saints,” Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado writes about the “intoxicating aroma of fruit . . . the smell of ripe jackfruit.”

Zaguri’s recollection of that same smell is similar: “There’s a big park in Rio near the city, with a lot of plants and water, and you find jaca , jackfruit, all along the way,” she says. “And when it falls to the ground, it releases this incredible smell, this strong, wonderful smell.”

It’s the smell of home.

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This isn’t the sort of flan most of us are familiar with--more a mousse than a caramelized custard. But it is delicious. There are two ways to make the dessert: frozen so it takes on the consistency of an Italian semifreddo and makes a wonderfully cool summer treat, especially with the creme Anglaise, or set in the refrigerator where it becomes a light, mousse-like-dessert.

Fresh or prepared mango pulp can be used. If you use fresh, peel the mango, puree it in a food processor or blender, then strain the puree. If you find mango pulp in bottles (at many supermarkets and Latino grocers), simply puree the pulp in a food processor or blender; you don’t need to strain it.

MANGO “FLAN” 1/2 cup boiling water 1 1/2 tablespoons unflavored gelatin 2 egg whites 1/2 cup sugar 1 1/2 cups pureed mango pulp 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream Creme Anglaise, optional

Pour boiling water over gelatin in bowl and let dissolve. Set aside.

Place egg whites in mixing bowl and beat until firm. Continue to beat, gradually adding sugar. Beat to soft peaks.

Stir together pureed mango, cream and dissolved gelatin in bowl until well blended. Gently fold in sweetened egg whites.

If flan is to set in refrigerator, place mixture in 1 (4-cup) souffle mold. Refrigerate several hours. Serve with Creme Anglaise.

If flan is to freeze in freezer, place mixture in 1 (9-inch) loaf pan. Freeze several hours. Serve with Creme Anglaise. Makes 8 servings.

Each serving, without Creme Anglaise, contains about: 129 calories; 19 mg sodium; 21 mg cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 18 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.26 gram fiber.

Creme Anglaise 1 1/2 cups milk 1/2 vanilla bean 3 egg yolks 1/2 cup sugar

Heat milk and vanilla bean in heavy-bottomed saucepan just to boiling point. While milk heats, whisk egg yolks and sugar in bowl until light and fluffy. Add small amount of hot milk mixture to yolk mixture and whisk thoroughly.

Slowly pour egg mixture into hot milk, whisking constantly. Heat over low heat until mixture coats back of spoon. Do not allow mixture to boil. Strain and chill. Makes about 2 cups.

Each tablespoon contains about: 24 calories; 7 mg sodium; 26 mg cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 4 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; trace fiber.

Note: Although many recipes call for uncooked eggs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has found them to be a potential carrier of food-borne illness and recommends that diners avoid eating raw eggs. Commercial egg substitutes that have been pasturized may be used in place of raw eggs in certain circumstances. Check egg substitute package for applications.

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This tasty and simple dish is a Caribbean staple that can be eaten as a dessert or as part of a main meal. The combination of salty cheese and sweet ripe plantain is delicious.

ABORRAJADOS 4 ripe plantains Oil 1/4 pound cotija cheese or other white salty cheese 2 eggs, beaten 1 teaspoon baking soda 1/2 teaspoon salt 4 tablespoons flour Guava paste, optional

Peel plantains and slice diagonally. Place oil, 1/4 inch up sides, in large saute pan and heat. Add plantain slices and fry until golden. Remove plantains and pound gently between pieces of wax paper to flatten.

Cut cheese into pieces small enough to fit on top of plantain slices. Set aside.

Mix eggs with baking soda, salt and 2 tablespoons flour in bowl to make batter. Set aside.

Heat oil for frying in large saute pan or deep-fryer.

Make “sandwich” by placing slice of cheese on top of 1 plantain. Smear cheese with guava paste and top with second plantain. Press sandwich together to seal. Sprinkle with flour, dip in batter and fry in oil until golden. Repeat with remaining plantain slices and cheese. Makes about 20 sandwiches.

Each sandwich contains about: 95 calories; 130 mg sodium; 26 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.18 gram fiber.

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If you can’t find fresh passion fruit, you can use bottled or frozen pulp. You can even substitute other fruits, such as lulo, curuba or mango pulp. No matter what, you should get a beautifully colored, light and tasty dessert. To get the pulp out of fresh passion fruits, simply open the hard shells and scoop out the pulp.

PASSION FRUIT MOUSSE 3/4 cup passion fruit pulp (equivalent to about 10 passion fruits) 1 tablespoon unflavored gelatin 2 tablespoons cold water 1/2 cup boiling water 6 egg whites 1 cup sugar Creme Anglaise, optional

Strain and discard seeds from passion fruit pulp. Set aside.

Dissolve gelatin in cold water in bowl. Add boiling water and stir until gelatin is totally dissolved, with no lumps.

Beat egg whites in separate bowl to soft peaks. Continuing to beat, gradually add sugar, then fruit pulp.

When ingredients are incorporated, gently fold in dissolved gelatin. Place mixture in 6 lightly greased 3/4-cup souffle molds. Let stand in cool place until firm.

Unmold and serve with Creme Anglaise. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving, without Creme Anglaise, contains about: 178 calories; 59 mg sodium; trace cholesterol; trace fat; 41 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 3.28 grams fiber.

Note: Although many recipes call for uncooked eggs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has found them to be a potential carrier of food-borne illness and recommends that diners avoid eating raw eggs. Commercial egg substitutes that have been pasturized may be used in place of raw eggs in certain circumstances. Check egg substitute package for applications.

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Coconut rice is a wonderful alternative to plain rice and is commonly used in the Caribbean to accompany seafood dishes. It is also typical in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. Sugar can be added according to taste and depending on whether the rice will be eaten alone or with other foods. The raisins can be omitted.

COCONUT RICE (Arroz Con Coco) 1 cup rice Water 1 1/4 cup coconut milk 1/2 tablespoon sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 cup raisins

In bowl soak rice in water to cover 2 hours. Drain.

Place rice, coconut milk, sugar, salt and raisins in large saucepan. Stir to combine. Bring mixture to boil. Lower heat, cover and simmer 15 to 20 minutes. Stir rice halfway through cooking. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about: 252 calories; 206 mg sodium; trace cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 34 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 1.49 grams fiber.

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In tropical countries, especially during the summer, shakes are everyday refreshments. Milk- or water-based, they’re easy to make and can be done with virtually any fruit. You can use frozen tropical fruit pulp (lulo, passion fruit, guava, tamarillo, guanabana, tamarind) or fresh fruit such as pineapple, papaya, mango, cantaloupe or strawberries mashed into pulp.

The amount of sugar you add will depend on the natural sweetness of the fruit you use. Always taste before adding sugar.

TROPICAL FRUIT SHAKE 1 part fruit pulp 2 parts water or milk Ice Sugar

Place fruit pulp, water, ice and sugar to taste in blender. Process until frothy.

Food styling by Donna Deane and Mayi Brady


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