Sailing Off on a Tropical Fruit Expedition

Just what does a cook do with all that weird-looking produce? A primer on the exotic

CARMEN MIRANDA wore them as headgear. Cortes reported back to the Spanish government that he saw the Aztecs eating them. Cooks in India prepared elaborate chutneys and rice dishes from them.

The fragrant influences of mango, papaya, guava, passion fruit, kumquat, kiwi, and plantain have been part of the cuisines of Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia for centuries. The coconut was especially important in India, not just for its food value, but because the plant's leaves provided thatching for roofs and its shells could be turned into food containers. An ancient Indian saying went: ``He who plants a coconut tree plants vessels and clothing, food and drink, a habitation for himself and a heritage for his children.''

In supermarkets these days, exotic fruits perch like impassive strangers next to the more familiar melons, apples, and oranges. The interest in ethnic cuisines, cooking with less meat, and adding more fruit to the diet has opened the way for these unusual fruits. But what does a cook do with all this far-out looking produce?

When I first ventured into new fruit territory, I was particularly curious about mangoes. Indian restaurants offer sweetened mango drinks to accompany curry dishes, and the mingling of flavors seemed heavenly. The coolness of mango puts out some of curry's fire. The fruits are a common ingredient in chutney (a fruit or vegetable relish often used with cold meats) and many kinds of desserts. But it's not easy to read a mango's seductively smooth surface for clues as to ripeness and taste. Most of the mangoes sold in the United States are shipped from Mexico, Costa Rica, or Florida, and they come in various shapes and sizes. Choose fruits that are unbruised and fragrant.

Mangoes need to ripen at room temperature until the fruit yields to the touch. Use care when peeling and cutting them because they are slippery to handle and have a long, oval, sharp-edged pit. The fruit tends to be stringy, so recipes often call for straining. The taste is powerful and rich, and will overwhelm lesser flavors. It's an acquired taste.

Papaya is more subtle and easier to use. Look for soft yellow or yellow-and-green fruits that are shaped like large pears. The outer skin can be taken off easily. Inside, the black seeds need to be scooped out. Papaya has a pleasing aroma. It can be added to fruit salads or sauteed with seafood and chicken.

Kiwi, which used to be known as Chinese gooseberry before New Zealand growers named it after their fuzzy native bird, is increasingly popular. Unlike many tropical fruits, kiwi keeps its shape and bright green color after cutting. Its tingly, slightly astringent taste complements everything from fruit tarts to chocolate cake. Kiwi hides no mysteries under the furry peel; its tiny crunchy black seeds add to its flavor. Once soft, it becomes mushy and should be eaten within a day or so.

Kumquats are small, oval, orange-colored fruits that have a strong citrus taste, but they are not actually in the citrus family. They have thin, sweet, aromatic skins and sour insides with small green seeds that should be removed in cooking. Asian cooks rely on the kumquat's tart presence in rice and shellfish dishes. The whole fruits can be added to aluminum-foil packets filled with baby spring vegetables, pieces of fennel bulb, and a few tablespoons of liquid such as orange juice and then baked to create a delicious side dish.

Don't expect to become an exotic-fruit connoisseur overnight. For one thing, the produce is more expensive than ordinary fruit because it is shipped from farther away. But when the summer heats up, the sweet flavors of tropical fruit can transport the tastebuds to a breezy South Sea island.

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