My last trip to Bangkok had me stuffed to the gills with all kinds of local produce. Foreign food distractions and occasional dalliances with mediocre local “foods” notwithstanding, my focus was on fresh tropical fruits. Every single day, ungodly amounts of mangosteens, durians, and rose apples were consumed. When people made comments about the absurdly huge volume of the fruit shells and pits in the garbage can, I just walked away, whistling, playing dumb.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t include rambutan (say “ngo” — take the ng from the word “singer” and add a short o to it and the end result should be pretty close), one of the most consumed fruits here in Thailand, in my daily fruit orgy. And since rambutans have started cropping up here and there in the US, I thought you might find a little commentary on this curious little red hairy fruit useful.
Good rambutans are supposed to be red — the more vivid red, the better. The just-picked, fresh ones often come attached to the branch. However, unless you live in Southeast Asia, your rambutans most likely don’t come that way. No worries. Just pick ones that are firm with both the shells and the hairy spikes looking fresh and dark red in color.
Sometimes the ends of the spikes are still green; those are fine too. In fact, rambutans from the Thai southern province of Surat Thani often sport red shells with greenish spikes even when they’re fully ripe.
Rambutans don’t stay at their peak condition for very long even when refrigerated. They should, therefore, be consumed during the peak period when they’re still firm and fresh. Even the ones that seem under-ripe should also be eaten right away. This is because, once picked, rambutans do not ripen any further; they just rot.
The shriveling of the hairy spikes is the first tell-tale sign of deterioration. Shortly after, the fruit loses its firmness, the shells become brownish and/or moldy in spots or all over (as shown in the picture above), and the aril flesh inside becomes water-logged and sour in flavor. You can tell that the sourness is not the kind of tartness typical of some fruits; the juice has an unpleasant fermented taste to it.
Good rambutans, on the other hand, have firm, translucent aril flesh inside. Once you cut it open, no excessive juices should be present. The taste of the flesh should be sweet with no hint of fermented sourness.
To cut open a rambutan, use a small paring knife to make a shallow cut around the fruit just like you would a mangosteen. With one hand, lift off the top half of the shell exposing the flesh. With the other hand, squeeze the globular aril-covered seed out of the other half shell. When nobody’s looking, I would secure the exposed flesh between my teeth and squeeze the whole thing into my mouth. Then I would do what all Thai people seem to instinctively know how to do which is skillfully detach the flesh from the seed with their teeth while having the whole fruit in their mouth. The fleshless seeds are then discreetly spitted out and discarded.
In some unfortunate situations wherein I’m supposed to eat rambutans in a lady-like manner, I would cut the fruit in half and dig out the seed with the tip of a knife. This method works well for those who find the practice of stuffing the whole fruit in their mouth and the look of oddly puffy cheeks unsavory.
When I was a kid I would look admiringly at my grandmother patiently gutting out a seed from a whole peeled rambutan with a very slender fruit-carving knife, one by one. This method results in tubular pieces of prepared rambutans (exactly like the way canned rambutans look) which are very pretty to look at and can be eaten more easily. There were times when I felt like learning how to do so. But the feeling proved fleeting and I quickly went back to playing with mud and climbing trees.
Rambutans are best eaten fresh out of hand. You can also slice up the flesh and turn it into jams, ice creams, and sorbets. Doused in heavy syrup, they also make great toppings for cakes and pastries.