You’ve probably eaten a few mangoes and pineapples before. If you’ve been to one of the fancier worldwide supermarkets you might have even found a star-fruit. These are staple Sri Lankan exports, but the country has a whole host of fruits that are still relatively unknown. Some of these fruits grow in unlikely places, others are inedible without the right know-how; most of them are pretty special.
Although it looks like a kids’ toy from the ‘90s, the rambutan is actually edible. To open a rambutan, cup it in your hands and find a groove between the spikes with your thumbs. Push downwards and then outwards to prise it apart. Once through the fuzzy outer shell you’ll find a glistening lychee-like fruit. Pop it whole in your mouth but make sure you don’t eat the seed.
Also known as the King Coconut, the orange thambili is one of the most prized fruits of Sri Lanka. Coconut picking is a dangerous job: pickers use a rope to tie their legs together and winch themselves up the long trunk of the trees.
Street sellers will cut an opening for you so you can drink the juice. If you ask nicely they’ll even cut the nut in half and fashion you a spoon out of the hard outer shell so you can scrape up the sticky goodness inside. King coconuts are used in ayurvedic medicine here, and are known as a source of carbohydrates, vitamin E, iron, calcium and phosphorus. Make sure you ask for a ripe one.
The cashew nut is actually a seed. It grows underneath the cashew apple – effectively the stem of the nut – that hangs from the tree. The relatively unknown cashew apple contains five times more vitamin C than an orange, but is easily damaged so harder to export.
The cashew nut grows in a shell that is toxic to the skin, which is why it’s only in the last few centuries that the nut overtook the apple in popularity. In Brazil – where the Portuguese colonisers originally imported from the cashew tree from – the nut is regularly discarded in favour of the apple.
In Sri Lanka the cashew is called the kadju, and you can find the apples sold by street vendors in villages around Batticaloa.
Naminams look more like fungus than fruit, and hang off the bark of the naminam tree in a similarly mouldy fashion. But the wrinkly fruits are much tastier than you might expect; giving off a sharp, sour tang. Perhaps because of their odd appearance markets don’t tend to stock these – you’ll be more likely to find them on the roadside or in someone’s yard.
The special thing about these berries is you need to massage them to bring out the sweetness. Take one of the marble-sized berries and lay it flat on your palm. Use the other palm to gently roll and massage it. After a few minutes it’s ready to eat.
Uguressa berries have antioxidant qualities and are used in traditional ayurvedic medicines. They can be found in markets in January and February.
This singularly odd fruit consists of a hard outer shell and a soft, seeded centre. The best way to break one open is by smashing the shell against the edge of a surface – we recommend a garden wall. The wood Apple is an acquired taste – sour, sweet, and hints of coffee – and the texture is a bit gungy and gristly, but it’s definitely worth trying. Wood Apple juices and jams are very tasty.
The rind, pulp, and shells of wood Apples are also used to produce glues, gums, dyes, hair fragrances, household cleaners and utensils.
The anoda also goes by the names sugar apple, sweetsop and custard apple. These names are fairly representative of the taste, while the flesh is soft, grainy and sweet.
You can buy them in Sri Lankan supermarkets or find them growing on the beach just south of Mount Lavinia Hotel.
The mangosteen is a segmented fruit contained in a purple rind. It’s known as one of the tastiest Sri Lankan fruits. It has immune system-boosting qualities, and is used to make health drinks, tablets and powders. The rind can also be steeped in water to make tea.
To open press firmly on the outside of the shell and twist until it breaks apart.
The pod-like fruit of the tamarind tree can be found littering the ground across Sri Lanka. Unripe tamarind is used in savory recipes like pickles, and the ripe fruit is used in sauces, snacks, juices and jams worldwide.
Homeowners and temple caretakers often use the fruit pulp to polish utensils, brass shrine statues and oil lamps.
The taste of the dragonfruit, which comes from the cactus family, is much less distinctive than the colour. The skin is inedible, but once you cut through the pink outer layer you’ll reach a soft, white seeded part, which has a subtly sweet taste.
It has a whole load of health benefits, and can be used to soothe sunburn and treat chemically dyed hair.