While many fruits commonly used in Asian cooking are eaten throughout the world, like the coconut or mango, there are a few unique Asian fruit ingredients that you will probably only find in Asian market. Learn about these fruits, as well as what you can use as a substitute if they can’t be found.
Bitter Melon – (also known as “balsam pear” or “bitter gourd”) A cucumber-like fruit, an ingredient for stir fries and soups. It resembles a pod and the seeds and inner membrane are removed and discarded before use. Look for fresh bitter melon in mild to warm months, or canned melon in a specialty Asian food store. Winter melon can be used instead.
Jackfruit – A large fruit that is a common ingredient in South Asian cuisine. It should be eaten cooked in savory dishes when under-ripe, or eaten fresh when ripe and sweet. The bumpy skin is removed and then the fruit is eaten raw or cooked into curries. Substitute breadfruit, plantains or potatoes for green jackfruit, or breadfruit or papaya for ripe jackfruit.
Longan – A small fruit with pink or yellow skin. Has the sweetness and tartness of a lychee, only less pronounced. Eaten alone or in Asian desserts.
Loquat – A juicy, oval-shaped fruit often used in Japan and China to make jams or preserves, but good to eat alone as well. It has a tart, citrusy flavor. In South Asia it is used to make chutneys. In appearance, it resembles an apricot. Substitute apricots or quince.
Lychee – A tart fruit with a bumpy, red skin. The flesh of the fruit has a gelatinous texture similar to grapes. It is used to make a tart sauce for duck or pork, and is also a common ingredient in Asian beverages, such as Japanese soda. Rambutan is a good substitute, but if that is not available green grapes can be used to replicate the texture and tartness.
Pomelo – (a.k.a. shaddock) The largest citrus fruit, pomelos are round and tangy. They can grow up to a foot wide. They are native to Malaysia, and are used there in cooking and in desserts. Can also be eaten alone. Grapefruit can be substituted.
Rambutan – A tropical fruit grown and eaten in Southern Asia. It is similar to the lychee nut, but has a spiny exterior shell. They can be eaten by themselves, or stuffed full of nuts, pork and garlic for a savory dish. They can also be used in desserts. They can be eaten either fresh or canned, and lychee is an excellent substitute.
Red Dates – (a.k.a. Chinese dates) The fruit of the jujube tree, dried before consumption. Not to be confused with palm tree dates. Used in Chinese cooking or soaked and eaten raw. Dried apples are an excellent substitute.
Tamarind – Fruit from the tamarind tree. The ripened fruit pulp is eaten raw, pickled, used in desserts, made into preserves or juiced for drinks, sorbets and ice-cream. Sold in pod form, or in blocks or jars. In some parts of the US, tamarind may be easiest to find in a Mexican market. It is used to make a popular type of chutney in India. Substitute molasses or brown sugar plus lime juice, but only as a last resort.
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