BEING literate in exotic cuisines has become an interesting leisure activity. Some may lament the shift in taste toward foods that are needlessly exotic and tremendously expensive. Plain honest food, cooked and served without pretension or affectation, sometimes seems to disappear from the pages of our newspapers and magazines. In the quest for status, food has become a major battlefield.
But what is exotic to one may not be to another. And prices vary in different regions of the country, as does the need for (and personal interest in) something to dress up the menu. And there are ways to add a touch of the exotic, without springing for the whole price tag.
Some very piquant and useful examples can be found among the new shapes and colors, tucked in among the familiar Bing cherries and Red Delicious apples, in large supermarkets.
For want of a better word, the new arrivals in this de partment can be tagged ``exotic fruits.'' Their outward appearance can best be described as ``weird.''
One of the ``weirdest fruits we've ever seen,'' says importer Frieda Caplan, is bright yellow and shaped like a bomb with warty bumps. ``Slice it and the inside is like green Jell-O with seeds. Take a bite and you get the flavor of limes and bananas.''
Of course Mrs. Caplan, who has been importing and marketing unusual fruits and vegetables as president of her own California company since the 1960s, knows very well that the real name of this fruit is kiwano, or horned African melon, and that it's from New Zealand.
``The kiwi was another unusual fruit, but this new kiwano really is odd,'' Caplan said recently when her company exhibited new produce at the Food Marketing Institute show here in Chicago. The kiwano has curious properties along with its bright colors and strange shape. ``It very conveniently has a do-not-refrigerate warning and a shelf life of six months,'' she explains.
When it comes to flavor, most agree the kiwano tastes like a combination of lime and banana but is very subtle. It is so subtle that it was panned on television by produce expert Joe Carcione, ``The Greengrocer.'' Despite his comment that the kiwano has barely any flavor at all, sales increased immediately.
This has been the story of several new, mostly imported, tropical fruits that have appeared in specialty stores and supermarkets in the last few months. One reason more of them are showing up is that transportation techniques now make it possible to ship perishable items long distances.
``But curiosity and the fas cination of something new is a very strong American trait,'' Mrs. Caplan says. ``Consumers have been begging for exotic food for years, and today the trend is definitely away from sugary, overprocessed sweets and desserts. You'll notice that some of the new ones are not as oversweet as other fruits we may be accustomed to, but they're pleasant and refreshing,'' she points out.
California and Florida growers are planting some of these new fruits, but other countries are fast getting to know more about American food habits. ``Now that we have direct dialing from foreign countries,'' she adds, ``I get calls from abroad every morning from farmers in other countries who are converting their crops to match the changing desires of the US consumers.
``New Zealand fruit growers made fortunes shipping kiwi fruit to the US, and now they're developing other exotic fruits such as the feijoa, tamarillo, cape gooseberry, and the cherimoya -- all for the American market,'' she says.
Restaurant chefs welcome the unusual fruits, too. And when diners see a star-shaped yellow fruit (carambola) decorating a few pale pink shrimp crescents at a fine restaurant, it's only natural to want to serve the same thing at home. Cherimoya-Orange Parfait 1 cup whipping cream 1 cup sour cream 1/4 cup sugar 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 1 tablespoons orange juice 1 teaspoon lemon juice 1/8 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup pur'eed cherimoya 2 teaspoons grated orange peel 2 cups cherimoya chunks 1 1/2 cups orange sections
Combine whipping cream and sour cream in deep bowl, refrigerate with beaters until well chilled, then beat until frothy.
Gradually add sugar, vanilla, juices, and salt.
Beat until stiff. Blend in pur'ee and 1 teaspoon orange peel.
Place half the chunks in 4 to 6 parfait glasses, spoon in a layer of cream, orange sections, another layer of cream, and remaining cherimoya.
Top with cream. Garnish with orange peel and mint leaves. Passion Fruit Whip 1 small papaya 1 1/4 cups heavy cream 4 small passion fruit 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 1 teaspoon ground mace
Halve papaya and discard seeds. Scoop out flesh into large bowl and beat into a foamy pur'ee.
In another bowl whip cream stiff, then fold into papaya and mix well. Cut passion fruit in half and scoop out flesh. Push through a fine sieve and fold into papaya-cream mixture. Stir in vanilla and mace and chill in refrigerator for at least 1 hour.
Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.