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Rare Gems: Unusual Chinese fruits

Summer in China brings an incredible abundance of jewel-coloured fruits, both familiar and unfamiliar. The fruit shop shelves, recovering from the barren winter months are now bowing under the weight of golden mangoes, amethyst grapes and ruby-blush nectarines. The sweet scent of bunches of lychees hanging from the awning mingles with the sweeter bananas and the sweetest of all, the last of the strawberries.

Yesterday I found myself with an armful of new fruits to try, just to discover the flavours and learn a bit more about them. As you can see, I had a lovely time photographing then tasting them. Several are not native to China but come from neighbouring countries, and are readily available here. Let me know which ones you’ve tried and what you thought!

Lotus seeds – Liánzǐ 莲子

I never tire of the beauty of a lotus – the broad, circular emerald coloured leaves, the fuschia blooms, the nodding capsules holding the seeds. 

Lotus seeds, liánzǐ 莲子, can be eaten fresh or dried. It’s not a fruit, I know, but a seed, but they were sitting at the front of the fruitshop looking so interesting I had to buy them.
Fresh lotus is generally only available close to the area of production in mid-summer, and are sold as an entire pod as shown here. By breaking open the lotus, the seeds can be easily removed and eaten fresh after removing the green skin. 

Dried lotus seeds are sold all over China for use in cooking (soups, deserts, stirfries) or medicinal purposes. A sweet paste made from dried lotus seeds is popular in Chinese sweets. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, lotus seeds ‘dispel heat’ and are considered restorative.
Wax Apples – Lián Wù 莲雾 

Intrigued by the glowing pink lantern shapes of these lián wù 莲雾 (wax apples), I bought a small box. The lady in my fruitshop told me they would be fantastic for my skin, and I guess a fruit with as little flavour as this needs something else going for it. Inside the pink skin is a crisp white flesh, crunchy and a little sour. 

Native to the Philippines, Malaysia and Samoa, they are prized more for their appearance than their taste. Beautiful aren’t they?
Dragonfruit – Huǒ lóng guǒ 火龍果

How odd and frankly poisonous looking dragonfruit are! Deep pink knobbled skins tinged with green spikes open to a pale and almost translucent flesh pipped with tiny black seeds. There’s almost no smell, and very little taste – a touch of sweetness. But the texture! Cool, yielding, with seeds like tiny tapioca pearls on the tongue. 

In Chinese, dragonfruit are known as huǒ lóng guǒ 火龍果 – ‘fire dragon fruit’ or lóng zhū guǒ 火龙果– ‘dragon pearl fruit’. Native not to China (despite the name) but to South America, they are members of the cactus family.

Although the taste is subtle, I love the colour contrast of the black and white fruit against more colourful companions on a fruit plate.

Yang mei 杨梅

Yángméi, has the shortest season of any fruit I know – about three weeks is all the time you’ve got to sink your teeth into these dark red plum-sized berries, and have the garnet juice run down your chin. I like them a little under-ripe, with a tart mulberry taste and slightly acidic juice. 

Also known as waxberries, bayberries and yumberries, they are delicious straight off the tree, but I’ve discovered they assume a jammy stickiness when stewed that goes well with icecream. In southern China, the native yang mei are distilled into a light pink wine, with a deadly kick!

Mangosteen – Shān zhú guǒ 山竹果

The purple mangosteen- shān zhú guǒ 山竹果. I’ve left the best, my favourite, ’til very last. I anticipate the mangosteen’s arrival every summer, watching the fruitshops for the first appearance amongst the lychees and mangoes, then I greedily eat them until my fingers are stained dark red from the skin’s crimson juice. Later, as August ends, I lament their brief season and their passing until next year.

The hard, dark husk, not all that inviting and quite difficult to get a purchase on (feel for a soft spot in the hard skin and push through with your thumb) gives way to a soft, fleshy white fruit, the taste all pineapple and strawberries with a hint of custard apple. If you’ve never tried one, go! Try! Fall in love!

  • Katja

    Beautiful photographs. Oh, but I am jealous of this bounty! I'm going to have to hunt down a mangosteen after your description, but I suspect it's going to be a bit of a mission here in Calabria. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, however …

  • whutzhappening

    With the exception of the dragonfruit, I haven't tried these fruits yet, but I always see them in supermarkets. I find them a little bit too exotic, so I'm scared to try them. Being the picky eater that I am, I might end up not liking it.

    Oh by the way, just to share, my mom once brought home a red dragonfruit. The inside wasn't white and black. It was bloody red, and it was really insanely crazy because it looked like blood was poured all over the bowl. My parents and I just stared at the sliced red dragonfruit. It was a crazy experience! We've never seen anything like it!

  • Theodora

    Beautiful shots — and I've not come across yumberries yet, so really excited to try them in situ.

  • Marisol

    Amazing as always dear Fiona.
    My name is Marisol and I have to confess being a huge fan of your blog. I simply love how you share the good the bad and the weird of living in Shanghai.

    Here in Mexico we call the dragon fruit “pitaya”, and in Yucatán, the region I live in, we prepare this fruit in water with a hint of lemon juice. If you can make some, try it! And don’t forget to add some ice.
    I seriously recommended it, especially in those suffocating summers’ days.

    Hope to read about you soon.

  • Mary Anne

    Oh, I'm addicted to yang mei, which I discovered in my first June in Shanghai (I was just about to say 'here' til I remembered I was in Canada…). Doug and I have overdosed on them in mad binges for the past three summers. The dried ones in the shops don't do the fresh ones justice. And mangosteens! Oh! We have mostly bought those (and snakefruit) in our SE Asian travels and mangosteens always remind me of Burma now. Lovely. Yum.

    And those lotus seeds… I had always wondered what those oddly shaped green things were in those baskets sold by the street fruit vendors.Did you actually try them? What did they taste like? Worth it?

  • Kim

    I tried lotus seeds for the first time last year when I was in Shanghai. I thought they were pretty good, very subtle taste and they were juicier than I expected. Lovely 🙂 Thanks for sharing, Fiona.

  • Fiona

    Thank you everyone for your lovely comments – I've been on the road and in an internet-free part of the world for a few days and unable to reply to any of you – so sorry!

    To Katya -I hope you accomplished your mission of finding a mangosteen in Calabria – I have always wanted to visit there!

    To whutzhappening: I had read about those blood-red dragonfruit – I imagine it's quite a surprise to find something totally different to what you expected inside – alarming almost 🙂

    To Theodora – there's only a week or so left of the season – hope you find some!

    To Marisol – delighted to meet you! Stop by often! Thanks for sharing that recipe for a cold pitaya drink, I'm wondering do you juice it or blend it?

    To MaryAnne – the lotus seeds tasted very fresh and 'clean', a little woody. Missing tropical fruits already in Canada?

    To Kim -thanks for letting us know too!

  • Marisol

    Hello Fiona!!! Sorry for the late respond, the pitaya´s(or dragon fruit) water is made with the pulp of the fruit; blend it with water, and some lemon juice and sugar. Te proportions of each ingredient are up to you and your taste. Don’t forget the ice and enjoy!!