Exotic Produce 101

By Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE

More and more produce varieties are available at your local grocery and farmers' markets. Yellow bell peppers, baby artichokes, grape tomatoes, and seedless cucumbers are almost commonplace nowadays. These are making room for candy cane (pink and white striped) beets, cherimoyas (custard apples), limequats (a natural cross of limes and kumquats), and Moro oranges (an original native of Italy, also called ‘blood' or ‘volcano' oranges for their fiery red interiors).

Asian Produce

As interest in ethnic cuisine continues to grow, so does the need for Asian produce. Americans are inclining to spicy, aromatic foods that are the signature of most Asian cuisines, according to Greg Drescher, Director of Education at Greystone, the Culinary Institute of America's West Coast branch.

So, how about some Gai with your Fun? Asian greens are easy to prepare and attractive on the plate. For your family and friends, these greens are exotic enough to be interesting but familiar enough not to be scary. Below is a list of some Asian greens. Their definitions can be found online at <www.vrg.org/journal/vj2004issue4/2004_issue4_healthyasian.php>.

  • Bok choy
  • Napa (or Chinese) cabbage
  • Gai choy (or mustard cabbage)
  • Ong choy (water spinach)
  • Gai lan (Chinese broccoli)
  • Asian basil (also called Thai basil)
  • Asian mint (called shiso or green perilla)
  • Cilantro

More on Asian Produce

Eggplant, or aubergine, did not originate in a field of parmigiana but rather in the woks of Asia. Asian eggplants come in a rainbow that begins with the palest white and ends in the deepest royal purple, with pale greens and lavenders in between. Asian eggplant shapes start at tiny pea and oval egg, progress to tennis ball, and end at the usual oblong. Pea eggplants are chubby green balls that grow in clusters and add a welcome bitterness to curries and salads.

Thai eggplants resemble veggie golf balls and can be white and green, all white, or all green. They are crunchy and tart and appeal to American tastes.

Slender eggplants, also called baby or Japanese eggplants, are slightly spicy and are usually white-fleshed with edible purple skin. They can be used in soups, stir-fries, or cassoulets or as a side dish on their own. Use Japanese eggplant to make tempura along with the usual carrots, potatoes, squash, green beans, and bell peppers.

Preparing Asian vegetables

Asian veggies require little assembly. All you need is a little fast heat, a dash of sauce, and a small amount of liquid. You probably already have vegetable broth, ginger, garlic, onions, and soy sauce. You may want to add some of the following to your pantry so you can just stir-fry or sauté, add some sauce, and serve up fast and easy gourmet Asian dishes:

Garam Masala, which carries Indian, Malaysian, and Indonesian flavors, is a mixture of ground spices, usually containing cinnamon, black pepper, cumin, cloves, cardamom, and nutmeg.

Hoisin Sauce is a thick, red sauce made from soybeans, garlic, sugar, and spices that adds a tang and sweetness to sautéed greens. (Check the label to ensure it is vegan.)

Miso is a Japanese staple made from fermented soybeans and wheat, rice, or barley. It comes in a variety of colors and flavors. Miso has a wine-like taste and can be used in sauces and soups.

Curry Paste spice combos are ground and mixed with oil to form fiery flavors. Every country and region has its own curry mixture. Indonesian sambal pastes have red chilies and (non-vegan) shrimp paste, while Ceylon curry has fennel, fenugreek, and cumin. Purchase a basic chili paste, many of which are vegan, and add your own signature fire.

Soy Sauce There are many varieties of soy sauce. Chinese soy sauce is generally stronger, while the Japanese varieties of soy sauce are more delicate. There are even lower sodium versions. Have a tasting and match your menu items with the soy sauce you prefer.


Many Asian fruits are becoming available to the consumer, such as the pummelo. The largest citrus on earth, this fruit tastes like a very sweet grapefruit and resembles this cousin on steroids. However, looks are deceiving, as pummelos are mostly very fragrant skin. The interior flesh can be white, yellow, or pink and is eaten like a navel orange. Pummelos are very seasonal and costs may vary, so include cautiously in your menu.

The blood orange, a hybrid of several types of sweet oranges, may have an entirely red or a red and orange striped interior. It is traditionally used for sauces and bar beverages. "Moro" is a new name for the blood orange. Usually seedless, the Moro is very aromatic, redolent with the scent of roses and berries. The culinary legend Escoffier preferred to use Moro orange juice in sauces and beverages to capitalize on both its flavor and its dramatic appearance.

We feel it is our responsibility to warn you against one fruit, however. Jackfruit is very popular throughout Asia, although its aroma is so strong that some hotels do not allow guests to bring fresh jackfruit into their facilities. Jackfruits usually weigh approximately 10-14 pounds each, are covered with a knobby brown skin that may remind you of a fruit-flavored armadillo, and have a multitude of black seeds. They have a flavor that could be compared, when downwind, to overripe protein. If you are still really curious about this item, you can find frozen cubed jackfruit and canned jackfruit juice in Asian markets.


The diverse family of citrus fruits and blossoms is versatile and durable. When stored in cool rooms, most citrus fruits will last for at least two to three weeks, serving as perfume for rooms, centerpieces, edible garnishes, beverages, and cooking ingredients.

Most oranges, grapefruits, and tangerines can be broiled or grilled. Beforehand, you may want to brush them with rice or maple syrup for a sweet counterpoint or with chili paste and pepper for a savory taste. Prepare a scented oil by combining one cup of olive oil with 3 Tablespoons of fresh lemon, lime, grapefruit, pummelo, or orange zest (grated rind). Use the scented oil in cooking or dressing salads.

Seville oranges, clementines, kumquats, limequats, and citron are just some of the "new" fruits available seasonally. Check with your local produce manager for fresh citrus, dried zest, and shelf-stable or frozen concentrates or purées.

The Seville orange, or bitter orange, is the ancestor of the modern sweet orange. Use it when you seek an orange flavor that is not too sweet.

A hybrid of mandarin oranges and bitter oranges, the clementine is usually available from November through March. It is named after Father Clement Dozier, a French missionary to Algeria who developed the fruit in 1905. The clementine is very juicy, slightly acidic, and easy to peel. Use clementine segments as a garnish for elegant desserts and beverages.

Citron is an ancient fruit. In the Old Testament and the Koran, citron was supposed to be the fruit of knowledge that Adam ate. Remnants of dried citron have been found by archaeologists in Egyptian pyramids. Citron is thought to have originated in China and is currently grown in Asia and the Middle East. It is a large citrus and usually weighs between one and eight pounds. The citron is a durable fruit and is used more for its ‘toughness' than its juiciness. The citron stands up well to being preserved in salt or sugar and is often crystallized or candied. It is also used for an edible decoration and as a room sachet.


Mangos and papayas may frequent your home so often that you take them for granted, but hopefully not. Although grown in many tropical countries, mangos and papayas are thought to have originated in Asian countries and have certainly been incorporated into Asian cuisine.

Mangos are available fresh, frozen, in concentrate, and as a frozen or canned juice. Ripe, fresh mangos are wonderful sliced and served as a refreshing dessert or as part of a seasonal fruit salad or potato salad. They are delicious as a frozen soy ice cream or sorbet topping, and the fruit itself can be made into ice cream. Mangos are also easily incorporated into baked fruit tarts, scones, and muffins. If you find yourself with overripe or frozen mangos, use them in smoothies or purée into a sauce for fruit salad. Underripe or green mangos may be shredded and incorporated into pasta, rice, and tofu salads or used as a 'vegetable' in curries and stir-fries.

Papaya is also available fresh and frozen. You are probably familiar with this pear-shaped, yellow-orange fruit with a million seeds and the peachy-strawberry flavor. Add chopped papaya to mixed green salads or tofu salad. Ripe papaya is an excellent dessert simply halved and filled with a scoop of sorbet or fresh berries. This fruit is a colorful way to top sorbet sundaes and makes an excellent ingredient in custards. Overripe or frozen papaya can be used in sauces and in fruit shakes.

Starfruit, also called carambola, looks like a bright yellow, three-dimensional, five-pointed star. Available fresh and dried, its tangy sweet flavor, firm flesh, and engaging shape make it perfect to garnish everything!

Although kumquats resemble miniature oval oranges, botanists have decided that this fruit isn't a citrus but belongs to its own genus. Kumquats are available fresh and canned, usually in heavy syrup. The skin is sweet, and the pulp is tart, so patrons get both a sweet and sour taste in one bite. Kumquats can be used in sauces, in salads, on desserts, or in place of lemon slices. Or if you crave the truly exotic, look for limequats, a natural cross of limes and kumquats.

Lychees are available fresh, frozen, and canned, but the canned are more practical for food service applications. Fresh lychees are very seasonal, and they have skins that resemble red porcupines and seeds that take up approximately half of the fruit. Look for fresh lychees in the spring and summer, especially in Asian markets. The payoff is that fresh lychees are the roses of the fruit world, highly aromatic with a luscious flavor.

If you've missed this year's fresh crop, purchase canned lychees, which are already peeled and seeded. Juicy and smooth, canned lychees retain a great deal of their flavor. Mix them with tart fruit, such as grapefruit sections, or serve with frozen desserts. Dried lychees are chewy and sweet and make a great snack.

Citrus Fruits and More

Here's a guide to the more edgy citrus fruits currently on the market, along with other interesting produce that can be used like citrus.

Cactus Pear
The 300 varieties of cactus pear — also called prickly, tuna, or Indian pear — grow almost exclusively in northwest Mexico. The interior can range from pale yellow to gold to green to red to deepest purple.
This creamy, dreamy treasure of a fruit has the texture of shimmery sherbet and a flavor that combines banana, papaya, and pineapple. Also called custard apple, this fruit is so wonderful that Mark Twain declared it "deliciousness itself," and Chile has named it the national fruit. Serve it as they do in Chile, sliced in half with a squeeze of orange juice.
Horned Melon (also called Kiwanoä and jelly melon)
Imagine a personal-sized, gold and yellow striped, porcupine-style melon. The interior has a luscious, banana jelly texture with hints of cool cucumber and lime. Kids love that they're green and slimy. When Paramount Studios was filming the Star Trek series, their food stylists used the horned melon as a futuristic food. You can serve it cut in half, with a squeeze of lemon juice, or you can scoop the shimmery interior into a dessert glass and serve with mandarin orange segments.
Kiwifruit are not true citrus, but they contain more vitamin C than oranges and grapefruit combined. Kiwi berries are baby kiwi and are entirely edible. Use kiwi as part of a marinade or sliced into fruit or green salads.
Lemon Grass
Sacramento chef and restauranteur Mai Pham was so enamored of this herb that she named her restaurant "Lemon Grass." Looking a bit like a stiff, solid, paler version of a scallion, lemon grass adds flavor to stocks, broths, soups, and rice and noodle dishes. Thai and Vietnamese chefs use lots of lemon grass. Cook with the white section of the stem and discard, just like you would a bay leaf, before serving.
Oro Blanco
Oro blancos do everything to the max — they are bigger, sweeter, juicier, and even more yellow than most grapefruit. A California native, the oro blanco is a hybrid of a pummelo (the original Asian grapefruit) and a regular grapefruit developed at the University of California at Riverside in 1958.
Tamarillo (pronounced ‘tom-a-RILL-o')
This South American native, related to both the potato and the tomato, is considered a fruit. The interior can range from apricot-orange to deep red. But beware the deep red variety — the color may wash off hands, but it's almost impossible to get it out of clothing. The tamarillo's tart, almost bitter, skin should be removed by poaching or blanching; the aspic-textured interior can be used in sweet and sour sauces, chutneys, and fruit salads.
Resembling a dry, brown-velvet seed pod, the tamarindo is popular in Asian and Spanish cuisines. The flavor is sweet, with touches of dates, apricots, and citrus. Tamarindo is prized for its pulp, which is used in Latin, Asian, and Indian sodas, cold beverages, teas, and popsicles. Another interesting fact — tamarindo is the secret ingredient in Worcestershire sauce.
The tomatillo, also called husk tomato, resembles a miniature Chinese lantern. Beneath the papery, pale green outer peel lies a perfect, plump green tomato. Acidy and lemony, tomatillos can be cut and eaten right away in salads or gazpacho. Also, they may be boiled until soft and served whole as a vegetable, or they may be chopped and added to sauces, guacamole, green salsas, and cooked rice.

Papaya Pasta with Pepper-Mango

(Serves 2)

An absolutely delicious pasta dish!

  • 4 ounces uncooked angel hair pasta, rice noodles, or spaghetti
  • ¼ cup green bell pepper strips (approximately one medium pepper)
  • 1 cup chopped ripe papaya (approximately one small papaya)
  • 1 cup chopped ripe tomato (approximately one medium tomato)
  • ½ cup chopped ripe mango (approximately half a mango) or frozen, thawed cubed mango
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro or flat-leafed parsley
  • 2 teaspoons oil
  • ¼ teaspoon ginger
  • ½ teaspoon white pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons slivered almonds, as a garnish (optional)

Prepare pasta according to package directions. Rinse, drain, and set aside to cool.

In a large bowl, combine bell peppers, papayas, tomatoes, mangos, cilantro, oil, ginger, and pepper and toss to mix. Add pasta and toss to mix. Top with almonds, if desired.

Total calories per serving: 345 Fat: 6 grams
Carbohydrates: 66 grams Protein: 9 grams
Sodium: 14 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Tofu ‘Fillets' With Capers and Fresh Lemons

class="serves"(Serves 4)

This dish is delicious served on a bed of cooked spinach that's been seasoned with balsamic vinegar.

  • Four 4-ounce extra firm tofu ‘fillets,' each 1-inch thick*
  • All-purpose flour for dredging
  • ½ cup silken tofu, thinned with 2 Tablespoons water
  • 2 cups panko**
  • 1-2 fresh lemons***
  • 4 Tablespoons nonhydrogenated vegan margarine
  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 1 Tablespoon capers, drained
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
  • Cooked spinach (optional)

Chill tofu ‘fillets' for 30 minutes. Dust each ‘fillet' with flour. Dip each ‘fillet' into silken tofu, and then dip into panko. Set on plate and refrigerate while you prepare lemons.

Remove skin from lemons and cut into sections, using a small paring knife to cut next to membranes. Over a small saucepan, squeeze pulp to extract juice, then discard pulp. Add margarine to saucepan. Place pan over medium-low heat and stir to melt margarine. When melted, add lemon sections, capers, and parsley. Set aside and keep warm.

Heat oil spray in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add fillets in single layer. Cook until nicely browned, approximately 2-4 minutes. Turn with spatula; cook until nicely browned, adding a little more oil if needed.

Place ‘fillets' on four dinner plates. Top with sauce and serve.


*To make a tofu ‘fillet,' purchase extra firm tofu in the traditional block form. Cut block lengthwise to create the four ‘fillets.'

**Panko is Japanese dry breadcrumbs. It is available in Asian markets and some supermarkets. You get a crisper coating when you use panko, but if you can't find it, use another type of dried breadcrumbs.

***Use two lemons if you want an assertive lemon taste in the sauce.

(Analysis uses plain, dried breadcrumbs.)

Total calories per serving: 420 Fat: 19 grams
Carbohydrates: 44 grams Protein: 20 grams
Sodium: 701 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Kumquat Muffins

(Makes about two dozen 3-ounce regular-sized muffins)

These muffins are scrumptious!

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1-½ cups whole wheat flour
  • 1-½ cups yellow cornmeal
  • 3 Tablespoons baking powder
  • 1-½ cups sugar (Use your favorite vegan variety.)
  • ½ cup silken tofu
  • ¾ cup vegetable oil
  • 1-½ cups soymilk
  • 1-½ cups prepared kumquats*

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place muffin papers in muffin tins or spray lightly with vegetable oil.

Sift flours, cornmeal, baking powder, and sugar into a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk the tofu, oil, and soymilk together. Beat into flour mixture only until just combined. (If you overmix, you will get tough muffins.) Stir in kumquats.

Pour into muffin tins and bake for 12-15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Note: To prepare the kumquats for this recipe, wash the fruit and place them in a large, heat-resistant bowl. Pour boiling water over the kumquats and let stand for 1 minute. Drain them, discarding the water; cut into quarters; and allow to cool. This technique can be used when you'd like to add kumquats to sauces, pies (to make creations such as a berry-kumquat pie), or cookies.

Total calories per serving: 219 Fat: 8 grams
Carbohydrates: 35 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 191 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Papaya Daiquiri

(Serves 6)

With those hot summer days around the corner, this beverage is sure to help you cool off.

  • ¾ cup light rum or apple cider
  • ¼ cup lime juice
  • 4 teaspoons superfine sugar or rice syrup
  • 1 cup puréed papaya
  • 2 cups crushed ice
  • Lime wedges for garnish

In a blender, blend rum or cider, lime juice, sweetener, and papaya until smooth. Add ice and blend until smooth. Strain if desired. Garnish with lime wedges and serve immediately.

(If different, amounts listed as rum/apple cider.)

Total calories per serving: 100/43 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 7/11 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 2 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE, is VRG's Food Service Advisor.