There are some pretty weird fruit around the world.
Sometimes you don’t even know a fruit is edible until someone shows you. Sometimes you can’t even tell that it’s a fruit, much less edible.
Fruit is fun, fascinating, sometimes hilarious, and occasionally really, really dangerous. But it’s also absolutely necessary for a healthy diet, which I’ve learned is hard to maintain on the road, yet absolutely vital.
Let’s take a tour of some of the strangest and most rare fruit you could encounter around the world (but sometimes not in your usual grocery store)…starting with a horror that could literally kill you in a matter of hours.
1. Ackee – Jamaica
Jamaica’s Ackee, originally native to West Africa, looks colorful and delicious…which just goes to show how looks can deceive.
Ripened Ackee turn yellow-red and burst open by themselves—but if you’re unwise enough to pry open an unripened fruit and try the flesh inside, you’ll quickly become a victim of Jamaican Vomiting Sickness, technically known as hypoglycin poisoning. You could be dead within a day.
And don’t even think of trying the seeds.
Despite all this, Jamaicans love the ripe yellow flesh of the Ackee fruit, and it’s an ingredient in their national dish.
2. Synsepalum Dulcificum (Miracle Fruit) – West Africa
At first glance, this Western African berry doesn’t look like much—and when you chew it, you’ll only notice its unique properties when you eat something else. Miracle fruit contains a glycoprotein that binds to your tongue and interrupts the normal operation of your taste buds, with deeply weird results. The bitterest lemons will taste sugar-sweet, as will any other sour foods for up to 30 minutes:
A large group of guests reached its own consensus: limes were candied, vinegar resembled apple juice, goat cheese tasted like cheesecake on the tongue and goat cheese on the throat. Bananas were just bananas. (A Tiny Fruit That Tricks The Tongue, New York Times)
In the 1970s, miracle fruit was put forward as a sugar substitute before being shot down by the FDA in suspicious circumstances (the sugar industry was suspected of sabotaging the study, for obvious reasons) and now it’s labeled a food additive.There are no known side effects, but you probably won’t be finding it in grocery stores anytime soon anyway.
(As for the taste of the fruit itself? Apparently, it’s like a more disappointing version of a cranberry. I guess you can’t have everything.)
3. Ruby Roman Grapes – Japan
These aren’t your typical grocery store grapes. If you’re in Japan and get a hankering for a bunch of grapes, be sure to check the price. The Japanese are crazy about their grapes, and if you’re unlucky enough to pop a Ruby Roman in your mouth, you’re in for a shock.
Ruby Romans are grown and marketed entirely in Ishikawa Province, Japan, and a bunch of them could cost anywhere from $900 to $11,000. That grape you just ate? $360, please. Arigatōgozaimashita.
4. Manchineel (Beach Apple) – Caribbean
This Caribbean fruit looks like a smaller variety of apple. If you see one, you might be tempted to pick it and give it a try. Bad idea. Here’s what happened to someone who did that:
I rashly took a bite from this fruit and found it pleasantly sweet. My friend also partook (at my suggestion). Moments later we noticed a strange peppery feeling in our mouths, which gradually progressed to a burning, tearing sensation and tightness of the throat. The symptoms worsened over a couple of hours until we could barely swallow solid food because of the excruciating pain and the feeling of a huge obstructing pharyngeal lump. Sadly, the pain was exacerbated by most alcoholic beverages, although mildly appeased by piña coladas, but more so by milk alone.
Over the next eight hours, our oral symptoms slowly began to subside, but our cervical lymph nodes became very tender and easily palpable. Recounting our experience to the locals elicited frank horror and incredulity, such was the fruit’s poisonous reputation.
Manchineel fruit is astonishingly toxic. Stand under the tree when it rains, and your skin will quickly blister. The sap damages the paint on cars. Most manchineel trees now carry warning signs—and the locals often play it safe by chopping them down to use for wood (after letting them dry in the sun for a few days, to neutralize the toxic sap).
5. Pitaya (Dragon fruit) – Southeast Asia & Central America
Crack open the gnarled, scaled exterior of a dragon fruit (it’s well-named—you’d expect to see it on Game Of Thrones) and you’ll find a snow-white expanse of flesh studded with tiny black seeds, sweet, nutty and low on calories. It’s a bit like eating a passion fruit (although a passion fruit is much pulpier).
Pitaya (dragon fruit) is part of the cactus family and you’ll find it growing in many places across Asia and a few in Central America, where it originated—and you really should hunt it down, because it’s packed with health benefits. You’ll also find dragon fruit everywhere from grocery stores to market fruit stalls.
6. Pandanus Tectorius (Hala Fruit) – Pacific Islands
With this Australian and Pacific islands fruit, looks are everything. The fruit of the hala looks like those cross-sections of the Earth you see in school textbooks, or perhaps an exploding asteroid—and those fiery fibers can be eaten raw or cooked.
Be sure to eat it quickly, though—if you leave it unrefrigerated, you’ll quickly discover why it has the nickname of “stink nut.”
And speaking of bad smells…
7. Durian – Southeast Asia
If you’ve been to this region in Asia, you’ve probably eaten Durian.
Durian’s official nickname is “the king of fruits”—but it’s also been dubbed “the bleu cheese of fruits” because of its incredibly off-putting aroma (which is the reason it’s banned from many hotels and forms of transportation across Asia). In the film Durian Durian, it’s even used as a weapon.
Because it’s such a novel experience, tens of thousands of travelers flock to sample its dubious charms each year. Durian isn’t just a fruit these days—it’s an experience. The kind you can film yourself doing, so all your family and friends back home can laugh at you.
8. Rambutan – Malaysia & Indonesia
Looking like a lychee crossed with Animal from The Muppets, Rambutan is a common sight across Malaysia and Indonesia.
It gets its name from the Malay word for “hairy,” but get past those soft red spines and you’ll find a single inedible seed wrapped in pale, moist flesh, exactly like a lychee, and packed with healthy fiber.
Rambutan is also great for your skin (its seeds can be turned into a paste scrub), for your gut (it’s traditionally used to rid the intestines of parasites) and for your overall wellness (its fruit is antimicrobial and anticarcinogenic).
9. Cherimoya (Custard Apple) – South America
Cherimoya, cherimoya. The name kind of rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?
Mark Twain called this “the most delicious fruit known to men.” Mark Twain was on to something. This “custard apple” looks like an overinflated artichoke, and it gets its nickname from the creamy texture of its flesh that tastes like a mixture of pineapple, strawberry, pear, and banana.
If you sample one, you’d be advised to pick all the seeds out—they contain poisonous neurotoxins—and the bark contains a compound that induces paralysis. Not a fruit to nibble carelessly on.
10. Costa Rica Guaba
Not to be confused with guava (easily done, since it’s roughly the same-sounding word), the Costa Rican guaba looks like an oversized boomerang covered in old leather. Definitely not your average Costa Rican cuisine!
Hack the casing open with a machete and you’ll find the fruit inside arranged in silky pockets. Inside each of those is an inedible seed. It may not be obvious what to do at this point, but here it is: you pop the seed in your mouth and carefully chew the cotton-like pulp away from the seed until it turns creamy and delicious—and you finally spit the seed out.
A word of warning: “guaba” is Costan Rican slang for the male sex organ. So be really careful what you ask for.
11. Tangelo (Ugli Fruit) – Jamaica
Jamaica seems to have a thing for weird and ugly fruit, huh? The tangelo (ugli fruit) is a cross between a mandarin orange and a grapefruit. And it is ugly. The ugli fruit is shaped like a rough teardrop, with thick, green-yellow skin. As it ages, it gets even more gnarly.
But its skin is softer than most similar fruits, so it’s easy to peel. Plus this fruit tastes citrusy and delicious (it’s eaten raw), and is packed with Vitamin C. The best part? They’re easily found in grocery stores, so you don’t have to go clamouring around trees to grab one.
12. Horned Melon (Kiwano Melon) – Africa
Found in the central and southern regions of Africa, the appropriately named horned fruit (kiwano melon) is sometimes even called a blowfish fruit or a jelly melon! It’s so otherworldly, it was even featured in an episode of Star Trek.
It’s orange like a sweet potato and fully covered in spiny pineapple-like horns. But crack it open and you’ll find a bright lime-green pulpy substance filled with edible, yummy seeds. Many people like to scoop out the inner fruit to toss into fruit salads or as a topping on ice cream. And, depending where you are, they’re often sold in grocery stores.
13. Weird Fruits that Deserve Special Mentions
Honestly, when I started writing about weird fruits, I thought there’d maybe be a handful of interesting ones. Turns out there are tons. I couldn’t finish this article without a few honorable mentions:
- Buddha’s Hand (North East India & China) – This lemony fruit looks like a gnarled hand, hence the name. You can often find its candied version in markets, and it also works well as a cocktail garnish.
- Ice Cream Bean (South America) – This is a large bean-like pod that has a sweet pulpy interior and is found in South America. It’s edible, it tastes like sweet vanilla ice cream, and it has the texture of cotton candy! If you live in the right climate, you can even plant your very own Ice Cream Bean tree and watch it quickly flourish.
- Star Fruit (Southeast Asia) – A native to this region of Asia (but also grown in Florida), star fruit deserves an honorable mention just because it’s quite literally the perfect star shape. You’ll find it in many grocery stores like Whole Foods and it has some excellent dietary fibres.
- Noni Fruit (Southeast Asia and Australasia) – You’re probably not gonna want to eat this one because, well, it tastes like vomit. It’s often referred to as a “starvation fruit” because Indigenous peoples would eat it only in times of famine as a last resort. Noni juice is also often used for medicinal purposes.
- Black Sapote (Mexico, Central America, Colombia) – Although the skin of this fruit is green, when you cut it open the interior pulp looks almost exactly like chocolate pudding. Although it doesn’t taste chocolatey (it’s more subtle in sweetness), you can scoop out the pulp with a spoon and pretend. The texture is exactly the same!
Your Fruit Should Never Be Weird (Or Dangerous)
Every country around the world has its own unique twist on fruit, and half the fun is trying the strangest thing on the menu or at the grocery store. I would never dispute the fun in doing that.
But when it comes to your health, “unique” often means “you have no idea what it’s going to do to your body,” and that can sometimes turn into a problem.
You may have heard the term “Five-A-Day”—or maybe you haven’t. The World Health Organization says you need five portions of fruits (including everything from cherries to tomatoes) & vegetables (everything from root veggies like sweet potato to stalk veggies like spinach) per day. Aim for around 80g a portion—this should serve as a rough guide to getting the right quantities of nutrition.
This seems to be an even more compelling reason to sample all the fruit you can get your hands on, including the really weird stuff. Go peruse those grocery stores! See what you’ll find.
Because all fruit is good fruit, right? 😉
Five-A-Day You Can Depend On
Apples. Grapes. Oranges. Raspberries. Strawberries.
These fruits are definitely not “weird” or “exotic.” You may even regard them as common, everyday and maybe even unexciting. They’re well known around the world, just like your average sweet potato or carrot in the veggie world.
But forget weird. There’s something to be said for reliable. These five fruits are delicious, beautiful, cheap, and completely lacking in 1,000-calorie nasty surprises.
They’re also available fresh just about everywhere you go—and that’s fantastic news for travelers.
Fresh Fruit is Near-Perfect Travel Food
- It’s usually allowed in your airline hand luggage. Fruits may contain lots of delicious liquid, but they count as solid foods, giving you an unrestricted stomach-filler and thirst-quencher in one package.
- It’s (relatively) easy to carry and show at security checks. Fruit usually comes in transparent packaging anyway, but what could be easier than popping it in a plastic bag?
- It smells good. If you’re in a confined space like a bus or a plane seat and you decide to have a snack, nobody’s going to complain about the smell of fresh fruit.
However, there are a few downsides to traveling with fresh fruit:
- It doesn’t last long—especially when it gets bruised. In warm conditions, it won’t stay pleasantly edible for much more than 2-3 days—and if it takes a bashing along the way, decay will set in a lot faster.
- It’s messy. Apple cores, orange peel, juice that makes your hands (and everything you touch) really sticky, the kind of stickiness even wet-wipes can’t fix.
- It’s fragile. It’s easy for fresh fruit to get squashed in your luggage and start leaking everywhere.
No matter where you are around the world, tasting local delicacies like fruit is always a fun and immersive experience. Just remember: not all of them are safe and healthy for you.
Hopefully this guide will help you think twice about reaching for that juicy “apple” on the tree without knowing exactly what it is.