How to Choose and Prepare Rambutans (Ngo เงาะ)

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.

30 Responses to How to Choose and Prepare Rambutans (Ngo เงาะ)

  1. Ravenous Couple August 1, 2009 at 3:44 pm #

    Thailand has the best exotic Asian fruits! Great post on rambutaans…but we can’t gete enough of mangosteens, esp the little ones with no seeds

  2. KennyT August 1, 2009 at 4:44 pm #

    I like Rambutans!

  3. Jenn August 1, 2009 at 6:58 pm #

    I don’t think I’ve had rambutans before, but I have seen them. They remind me of lychee in a way. I may have to looks some up.

  4. Chef Fresco August 1, 2009 at 11:14 pm #

    That’s the craziest looking thing I’ve ever seen! I bet you’re getting so much great food over there!

  5. OysterCulture August 2, 2009 at 1:45 am #

    I feel like I am an expert. I had some when we were in HK, and they were delish.

  6. lisaiscooking August 2, 2009 at 2:41 am #

    I’m becoming more and more jealous of the varieties of fruits available in Bangkok! Great info here, and I wish I could taste a fresh rambutan right now.

  7. Joel August 2, 2009 at 6:01 am #

    Hmmm rambutans. I miss Thailand.

    Hey Leela please bring back the old header with your beautiful face. I don’t like looking at a pepper.

  8. doggybloggy August 2, 2009 at 3:13 pm #

    mmmmmmmmm boy do I love me some rambutan – but again ten bucks US per pound is no value….even though I do get a couple now and again….

  9. Phyllis August 2, 2009 at 4:07 pm #

    Fabulous informative post, Leela! I always thought this fruit was hilarious growing up because it was ‘hairy’. I hardly ever see any in the Tri-state area so I haven’t had them in a very long time. Bookmarking your post so I know what to do if I ever come across them 🙂

  10. 5 Star Foodie August 3, 2009 at 2:40 am #

    I haven’t yet tried a rambutan but every time I buy an exotic fruit or veggie, my supermarket cashiers always ring up rambutan so I was really looking to trying it soon. Thank you for the informative post!

  11. kirbie August 3, 2009 at 5:41 pm #

    I’ve wanted to try Rambutans, but I haven’t yet seen them available at any supermarkets near me. Great informative post though!

  12. pigpigscorner August 3, 2009 at 9:07 pm #

    How I miss this fruit too! We always have durians, mangosteens and rambutans. They seem to come as a package.

  13. Vicky August 3, 2009 at 10:51 pm #

    I love Rambutans! When I was younger I traveled to Thailand with my family and discovered them! I ate a bag a day. I recently found them at a super market in NYC.

  14. Manggy August 4, 2009 at 4:00 am #

    Thanks for the tips! I’d never even HEARD of rambutan jam before today! 🙂

  15. Arwen from Hoglet K August 4, 2009 at 12:03 pm #

    That mouldy rambutan is a good warning to be careful when buying fruit! It’s interesting that you mention rambutans, because my mum tells us they were everywhere on her trip to Thailand. We do have them here, but I’m not sure if I’ve had them or only lychees.

  16. Jackie at August 4, 2009 at 6:31 pm #

    When I went to Thailand few years ago. I remember all the wonderful sweet tropical fruits I had. All sooooo sweet. And don’t bring up the durian because it’s 20 times better than the one in Vietnam!

  17. Kristen August 4, 2009 at 9:50 pm #

    They are so cute! The only rambutans I have ever had were freeze-dried, loved the flavor, but the dry airy texture just doesn’t feel like fruit. Now when I find real ones I will know what to do with it, thanks!

  18. Kristen August 4, 2009 at 9:51 pm #

    oh, forgot to mention that I like your new header!

  19. pigpigscorner August 4, 2009 at 10:24 pm #

    Hi leela, would like to pass this Kreativ Blogger award to you!

  20. Dhanggit August 5, 2009 at 10:50 am #

    oh how i miss eating rambutan!! kinda hard to find good and fresh rambutans here in france 🙁

  21. doggybloggy August 5, 2009 at 3:42 pm #

    I thought for sure you would have seen the award but sine you didnt I am letting you know….

  22. kar August 5, 2009 at 9:58 pm #

    What an interesting post! I used your blueberry compote in a recipe and thought I’d let you know! Thanks!

  23. WizzyTheStick August 9, 2009 at 11:54 pm #

    Love this fruit. Not common here but there was a tree at my husband’s workplace and he used to bring them home. We jokingly called them hairy balls:-)They taste like lychee. Sadly the tree was cut down to construct an office building. booo.

  24. Becca August 14, 2009 at 6:12 am #

    Just found your website and am enjoying and learning a lot. Thank you!
    Do you have a great Thai hot and sour soup recipe?
    Sorry to put this question here but could not find another place to ask you.

  25. Leela August 14, 2009 at 6:24 am #

    Hi Becca – You mean Tom Yam?

    This is just one way of making it. An easier way which doesn’t involve long simmering/stewing will be posted soon. Thanks.

  26. Anonymous August 3, 2010 at 8:47 am #

    Heard that rambutan can be made into wain. Anyone know how?

  27. Leela August 3, 2010 at 1:56 pm #

    Anonymous – I assume you meant “wine.” Yes, I’ve heard of some people making wine out of canned rambutan. In fact, if you google “rambutan wine,” you’ll see quite a few mentions of and instructions on how to make it both from canned rambutan and fresh rambutan.

    Making wines from tropical fruits is nothing new. Local wineries in Thailand have routinely made wines from local fruits for years. Making rambutan wine from canned rambutan, on the other hand, is not commercially done, as far as I know. I guess you could make wine out of canned rambutan as some people have done. Whether or not it’s good wine, I can’t say.

  28. Jason Nappier October 25, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

    I had this fruit at a friend’s house (he is Vietnamese and calls it chom chom) and was instantly hooked. I googled how to pick these at the market and found this great blog.

  29. clcjm February 20, 2014 at 11:29 am #

    Wish i’d read this before I bought rambutan.What I bought has brown hair/spikes–might be why they were 2 for $1! Just ate one and it was ok. I didn’t have much luck cutting out the seed/pit so just popped it in my mouth. Guess I need practice doing it that way but I managed. Thanks for the info!


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