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Getting to Know You

August 22, 1991|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Apples and oranges, peaches and plums--that's what we used to shop for. Now odd-looking fruits with strange-sounding names-- feijoa , horned melon, tamarillo , pepino , nashi , sapote --are showing up among the old regulars.

Some are imported and some are cultivated by California growers hoping to come up with another kiwi, the New Zealand fruit that took off as a trendy garnish and is now a supermarket fixture.

The new fruits are generally expensive, but prices can vary. Nashi (Asian pear) has been selling for $2.69 a pound at the Modern Food Market in Little Tokyo, but the firm, round, buff-skinned fruit was 85 cents a pound at a market in Chinatown. Pepinos , a diminutive member of the melon-cucumber family, were $3.99 a pound at Ralphs recently, and a single feijoa --the small, oblong green fruit also called pineapple guava--cost 99 cents.

The fruits are seasonal, and some appear so briefly that by the time you hear about them they're gone. Fresh lychees put in a short stint here recently. And the infamous, odoriferous durian of Southeast Asia was here in May.

Fresh longans, which taste a little like an extra-sweet grape, are in Chinatown now. They're $9 a pound. Starfruit--a yellow, ridged fruit that cuts into, well, star-shaped slices--is due this month. And California-grown white sapote will arrive soon (the crop is running late because of last December's freeze).

The nomenclature can be confusing--so many of these fruits have so many names. Nashi , in addition to being called Asian pear, is also known as apple pear, sand pear, salad pear, Chinese pear and Oriental pear. The horned melon answers to the names African horned cucumber, jelly melon and kiwano. ("Kiwano" is actually the trademarked brand name used by the developers of this fruit, John and Sharon Morris of Kaukapakapa, New Zealand.)

The cactus pear's list of names includes Indian fig, Indian pear, Barbary fig, sabra and prickly pear fruit. Tuna is the name used in Mexico, and the favorite variety for eating there is the green-skinned, green-fleshed tuna blanca. Crates of this fruit, packed by Fruteria Mexico in Tijuana, were being unloaded at the Grand Central Public Market last week. Orange-and-red-fleshed cactus pears are popular in Italy, where the fruit is simply peeled and eaten out of hand.

Americans are still getting to know these fruits--and whether they will be accepted is an open question. Kerry Hodges, Ralphs vice president for produce, says: "It's a small segment of the population that buys those items." He continues to stock them, however.

Christopher Martin of New Zealand Gourmet, a major dealer in exotic fruits, says that the biggest demand for exotic fruits is in metropolitan areas. "Los Angeles," he says, "is very good; Chicago is extremely good." He predicts that the pepino will win wide acceptance. "It has a very light, refreshing flavor that appeals to most people." Feijoa , he says, is "a great fruit," and is getting good response at store demos. And the horned melon has "good shelf life--a plus for retailers--and terrific eye appeal."

It was Frieda Caplan, the marketing genius who made kiwi a household word, who introduced the horned melon in the mid-'80s. The fruit is oblong and orange with spiky protuberances that make it look like an invader from outer space. "It was so unique and so different that I was totally intrigued," she says. Caplan is delighted with consumer acceptance. "We have not been able to keep up with the demand for it," she claims.

Caplan also praises the feijoa. "If you get the right variety, it's absolutely wonderful," she says. But the fruit that is tops in popularity with Americans is the cherimoya. "It has a wonderful vanilla ice cream-nectarine sort of flavor," Caplan says. "People seem to become addicted to it."

What do you do with these fruits once you've got them? Most wholesalers provide brochures and informative labels. Frieda's Inc. has a colorful "Guide to Exotic Fruits" that charts 36 varieties and supplies such recipes as cherimoya-coconut sherbet and passion fruit daiquiri. The company has also compiled question-and-answer brochures for consumers, one dealing with tamarillo, passion fruit, horned melon and feijoa, another with cherimoya, pepino, blood orange and cactus pear.

To get any of these brochures, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to Frieda's, Inc., P.O. Box 58488-LAT, Los Angeles 90058. Allow 29 cents postage for a single brochure, $1.25 for a set of nine brochures.

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