Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Wild, Weird and Wonderful Fruits of Brazilian Markets or How to Tell if Your Mangostin is Ripe

A selection of fruits on offer at the Merdaco Municipal in São Paulo, Brazil (photo by Luis Bastardo)

One of the great joys of traveling is visiting local markets and expanding your global food horizon, so to speak, by sampling everything in sight. Brazil and Venezuela are particularly good countries for finding new and exotic (at least to non-Brazilians and non-Venezuelans) fruits and vegetables. Before visiting these countries, I had never heard of fruits such as nispero, caimito, jobito, curuba (aka banana passion fruit), semeruco or icaco, much less tasted them. In Venezuela, there are too many fruit stands to count (called "batidos de frutas") , offering fruit smoothies in every combination imaginable. The choices are overwhelming and more than a little intimidating. Try deciding whether it's better to order the semeruco/icaco combo or the nispero/jobitio mix. In Brazil, it is even more of  challenge to decipher the names and varieties of fruits, given that everything is written in Portuguese and I only speak English and basic Spanish. Nevertheless, not one to be deterred by such trivialities as language barriers, I usually forge forward  in most foreign countries with fingers crossed and health insurance card updated, to try whatever the merchants will allow me to taste, and so it was in Brazil.

Sapucaia do norte fruit, showing its hard exterior and the sweet, edible seeds inside (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The Mercado Municipal (Municipal Market) in São Paulo, is one of the best places to visit to immerse yourself in the fruit heaven which is Brazil. The merchants are friendly, knowledgeable and always at the ready with a sharp paring knife and a handful of fruit, handing out juicy samples to potential customers. Several varieties are familiar to North Americans and Europeans, such as mangos, avocados, persimmons or passion fruit (known locally as maracuja), still others are known to those who live in cities with significant Latin or Asian populations, fruits such as cheremoya, dragon fruit (known in Brazil as pitaya), or kumquats. While perusing the fruit displays for my next taste, several mysterious fruits appeared to be inedible, with dark, hard shells, dry-looking exteriors or rather frightening hairy spikes, but to my delighted surprise, were usually hiding soft, sweet, luscious interiors. Several fruits are considered to be natives of other countries, such as the Asian rambutan or the odoriferous durian, but are also grown in Brazil. Since Brazil occupies more land mass than any other country in South America, the huge nation encompasses many different growing zones, soils and levels of humidity and so is able to cultivate most of the fruit of the world in one place or another.   

The scary looking rambutan, whose spikes hide a sweet, white fruit similar to a lychee (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Luis, possibly a reincarnated fruit bat, loves fruit, all fruit. I swear the man eats ten kilos a day of whatever he can get his fruit-junkie hands on, so needless to say, his hands and face were juice-stained 10 minutes after we arrived at the Mercado Municipal. He was like some wild-eyed fruit addict, running from stand to stand, practically knocking down senior citizens to get his fix, when suddenly he came upon what appeared to be a really interesting fruit called a mangostin, which he had to try. Unfortunately, he was in such a fruit-induced sugar high, that he didn't notice that this particular fruit cost 129.90 Reais a kilo (at today's conversion rate, that's about $72 US dollars a kilo or about $33 a pound), meaning that a single fruit about the size of a jawbreaker cost US$7. He kindly gave me half of it and I have to say that it was a pretty damn delicious fruit, although I would be hard-pressed to spring for a kilo. Between us, though, we probably ate our weight in fruit at this and other tempting markets throughout Brazil. Ah well, there are worst addictions, I suppose.

P.S. - thanks to everyone for all your ongoing support, compliments and words of encouragement...I really appreciate it! BTW, if you want to leave comments and you don't have a Google account, all you need to do is click on "Comments" at the bottom of each post, then where it says "Choose an Identity", select either "Name" or "Anonymous", then you can post anything you would like. Hope to hear from you soon!

 A display of mangostin, possibly the most expensive fruit in the world (photo by Luis Bastardo)

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