A first trip to the local tianguis can be mind-boggling—there are so many sights and smells of so many unfamiliar foods. For now, let's take a tour of some of the tropical fruits that you'll want to try.
I saw so many marvelous tropical fruits on Wednesday at the tianguis (street market) where I usually shop: cherimoya, guanábana, mamey, and carambola. Papaya, mango, sapote, maracuyá, and bananas nearly the size of your forearm—and other tiny bananas, the ones that are the size of your thumb.
And then there were the tunas. Since when is a tuna a fruit and not a fish?
The fruits available in season in Mexico can be confusing when we're used to the ordinary apples, peaches, oranges, pears and plums in North of the Border supermarkets. We have those "normal" fruits here too, but wait till you try the exotic produce that awaits you in Mexican markets.
The cherimoya ranges from tennis ball size to a fruit the size of your head. The guanábana can have a size range equally wide. Either fruit should be eaten when the fruit is very soft but not mushy. At home, I often cut a small ripe cherimoya in half and eat it with a spoon right from the skin. It makes a wonderful light dessert. The seeds are big, black, shiny, and easily discarded.
Guanábana (soursop) flesh is eaten with a spoon or is used to make drinks and paletas (popsicles). Try this easy, delicious, and refreshing drink.
Agua Fresca de Guanábana
(Fresh Guanábana Juice Drink)
1 pound ripe guanábana
3/4 cup white sugar
8 cups water
1 cup milk (optional)
Cut the guanábana in half and scoop out the tender white flesh. Discard the bitter peel. Put the fruit flesh in a large bowl and reduce to a pulpy liquid, using a potato masher or the back of a large spoon. Discard the large black seeds as they appear.
When the fruit pulp is mostly liquefied, add the sugar and stir together with the fruit pulp and its juices. Put the fruit and sugar mixture in a 3-quart pitcher. Add the eight cups of water and the milk, if you wish. Stir well and chill for an hour or more.
The papaya and the mango are two of the more familiar tropical fruits available in Mexican shops and stalls.
The deep orange-red flesh of the Mexican papaya is much richer and sweeter than its small yellow Hawaiian relative. The papaya is best eaten when very ripe; the flavor and sweetness have developed beautifully just when you think the fruit might need to be thrown in the trash can.
When the papaya is super ripe—even a little moldy in spots—peel it and cut away any small sections that might be overly soft (the overly ripe spots will be darker in color, translucent and softer than the rest of the fruit). It's delicious cut into chunks for breakfast, with a squeeze of limón criollo (the tiny round Mexican lime), a sprinkle of salt, and a dash of powdered chile if you like a little heat with your tropical fruit. For dinner, papaya slices combine with thinly sliced red onion, toasted pecans, and fresh watercress to make an exotic and refreshing salad. Try the salad with a raspberry vinaigrette dressing, either your own concoction or a bottled variety.
There are nearly 2,000 varieties of mango grown worldwide. India produces more mangos than all other fruits produced in that country combined. The mango, king of fruits, is related—believe it or not—to poison ivy. Cultivated in Asia for more than 4,000 years, the growing of mangos has now spread to most parts of the tropical and sub-tropical world. The mango could well be the national fruit of Mexico.
A mango tree can grow 75 to 100 feet high and bears thousands of fruits each year. During mango season (June-August) here in the Guadalajara area, we use caution when walking under enormous mango trees; one of the heavy fruits could inflict a mighty thump to the top of an unsuspecting head.
Mangos are so wonderfully versatile that it's difficult to choose one particular mango recipe for you to try. Eaten fresh for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, the mango is unbeatable. One friend substitutes mango slices for fresh peaches when making cobbler, pie, or Brown Betty. Another makes a fantastic mango mousse, and yet another is renowned for her mango sorbet.
Cutting up a mango can leave you with juice up to your elbows, stains on your clothing, and stringy shreds of fruit in your mixing bowl. Here's the simplest way to cut a mango with minimal mess, loss of fruit, and frustration. You'll be pleased that your mango, cut this way, will not be the least bit stringy.
Lay the mango on your cutting board with the narrowest side facing up. With a very sharp knife, cut completely through the mango along one side of the broad, flat seed. Then cut through the mango along the other side of the seed, leaving a narrow strip of skin and flesh around the perimeter of the seed. Set the seed portion aside.
Lay the two halves of the mango skin-side down on the cutting board. Cut through the mango flesh (but not through the skin) to make approximately nine diamond-shaped pieces in each mango half. Then gently flip each half of the mango inside out, so that the diamond-shaped pieces pop up. Use your knife to cut each piece free of the skin.
Next, cut the skin from the strip of mango surrounding the seed. Cut the flesh in pieces as large and as close to the seed as you can. Cut all the mango flesh into pieces the size you need.
Voilà, no strings, no shreds, and no lost juice.
My inviolable household rule is that the one who cuts up the mango gets to slurp any remaining fruit from the seed. Try to suck the seed until it's bone-white--that's how we do it South of the Border.
The banana is a familiar North of the Border favorite. Babies eat it as their first mashed fruit; older folks can eat one a day for an easy daily dose of potassium. Here in the subtropics, we have a huge variety of bananas that are just beginning to make their way north to Latin markets in the United States and Canada.
The guineo (similar to the ordinary banana), the dominico (a tiny banana also known as the ladyfinger), the manzano (the 'apple' banana), and the plátano macho (the 'macho' banana) are only four of the many types of this fruit that we see regularly in our markets.
The tiny ladyfinger banana, three to four inches long, is delicious eaten as a snack. The peel is almost paper-thin and the firm flesh is sweeter than most full-size bananas. The manzano banana has reddish peel and a marked apple-banana flavor.
The plátano macho is my particular favorite, however. While it's still green and hard, it can be sliced into and fried into savory, salty chips called tostones. Fully ripened—the skin at this stage is dark brown or black—the plátano macho is called the maduro (mature or ripe). I don't get nervous even when I see that my maduros have a spot or two of mold on the skins. That's when they're the best, and this way to prepare them is my favorite. Be careful, they're addictive.
Plátanos Machos Fritos
Fried Sweet Plantains
2 very ripe plátanos machos (plantains)
Peel the plaintains. Cut each plantain on the diagonal into pieces 1/4" thick.
Heat approximately 1/4" vegetable oil in a large non-stick or cast iron skillet. The oil should be quite hot but not smoking. If the oil starts to smoke, remove the skillet from the heat until the oil cools down slightly.
Put as many of the plaintain slices in the frying pan as will fit without touching one another. Fry on one side until golden brown. Flip each slice over and fry until golden on the other side. Add oil to the skillet if necessary and continue frying the plantain slices until all are done.
Drain thoroughly on paper toweling.
Serve for breakfast with fried or scrambled eggs, refried beans, and hot tortillas. The fried plantains are particularly delicious when topped with a dollop of Mexican crema (or sour cream).
The tuna (prickly pear cactus fruit) is an unlikely-looking addition to the table. The thick pale green or deep red skin is covered with spines, the fruit is filled with BB-size hard seeds, and the flesh is normally either pallid grayish-green or red. Nevertheless, the tuna is one of the most refreshing and delicious fruits of Mexico. Chilled, peeled, and eaten either out of hand or (in a more refined style) from a plate, with a knife and fork, the tuna cools you from the inside, the way a cold slice of watermelon brings brief respite to a hot afternoon. Swallow the seeds along with the flesh; they cause no harm unless your doctor has suggested that you not eat seedy foods.
The maracuyá (passion fruit) is unusual even for the subtropics. It looks like a large greenish-yellow egg with a stem attached. The skin of the passion fruit is thin but hard. You will need a sharp or serrated knife to cut through the top third of the 'shell'. The pulp of the passion fruit is cradled in the bottom of the remaining shell. Pale green and filled with small seeds, the pulp honestly doesn't look like anything you would want to eat, but it has a sweetly tart flavor that's quite agreeable. Some people scoop the pulp and seeds out of the shell and stir them into a glass of orange juice to drink; others simply eat the pulp with a spoon, directly from the shell—seeds and all.
The mamey is a love-it-or-leave-it sort of fruit with a hairy brown shell and rich peachy-red flesh. Some folks crave its sweet, soft, candied yam-like flavor while others can't stand the thought of it. I'm in the latter category, but a California friend has to buy a ripe mamey or two immediately each time she visits me.
Here in Mexico, the flesh of the mamey is also used medicinally, as a cream to cure certain skin conditions. The inside part of the large seed can be toasted, ground, and rubbed on the eyelashes and eyebrows to prevent them from falling out.
This series of photographs, recipes, and descriptions is just the beginning of your knowledge of the tropical fruits available season by season here in Mexico. Each harvest time brings new and different produce to our markets. We learn as we live here to anticipate certain local fruits at certain times of the year: fresas (strawberries) starting in February; tiny orange-red ciruelas (plums) late in the summer; the tejocote (similar to a small crabapple) early in winter. There are other fruits gathered locally in the wild: the capulín (a kind of wild cherry) and the guamúchil (a small whitish, crisp fruit that grows on trees, in a twisted pod).
In addition, of course, we have oranges, grapefruit, pineapple, watermelon, cantaloupe, peaches, apricots, apples, pears, grapes, and tangerines in their seasons. All of these well-known fruits are generally picked in season and at the peak of ripeness here in Mexico and will cause you to lick your fingers, reach for seconds, and exclaim, "You know, I don't think I've ever really tasted one of these before!"