Recently, after finishing my shopping at the central market we were on the return drive when I glanced to my left and saw a pushcart full of Rambutan and Mangosteen. I quickly asked Shibu to pull over so I could make sure it wasn’t my imagination. I have to acknowledge that this was one of the many market-going moments when I wished I’d remembered to tuck the camera into my bag!
The cart had a pile of each fruit…the rambutan (looking like a Martian lychee covered with rubbery “hairs”) ranging from dark red to brownish maroon, and the mangosteen, a beautiful purple brown bordering on eggplant with little stems attached to a woody cap like a circle of flower petals.
There were more mangosteens strung up like Christmas garlands by their stems. I’m very familiar with the rambutan, called mamón chino in Spanish (translated “Chinese sucker”), as we had them frequently in Costa Rica, but I’d only read about the mangosteen and was very excited to try it—especially as the USDA has restricted its import into the U.S. for years. Like the custard apple, I neither knew how to choose a ripe one or how to open it. The vendor pried it open with his fingers to reveal the translucent pinkish white interior, but I later learned it is far more elegant to use a paring knife. A careful incision around the fruit’s circumference will allow the top to twist off and open like an organic Fabergé gift box.
Mangosteens are native to the Moluccas Islands of Indonesia and it is believed they were brought to southern India in the late 17th century. It’s ironic that the more popular name for Moluccas are the Spice Islands, considering that the tree now grows in what is known as India’s spice coast. Another interesting fact is that it is sometimes called the “Queen of Fruits”. I don’t know if this sobriquet bares any relationship to the mango’s “King of Fruits”, but I plan to do some poking around to find out. (Actually, one has to be careful with anthropomorphizing fruits in this manner, as the Durian apparently also carries the royal masculine moniker as well–and why that is, well, we won’t go there…)
Although interesting, none of these facts or philosophies actually relate to the mangosteen’s superb taste. Its delicate flavor is something akin to a cross between a peach and a strawberry, with a dash of creamy vanilla and a hint of tartness that adds to the depth of flavor the same way salt does to many foods. The texture is not unlike the custard apple, but the segments are more geometrically uniform, and without the numerous seeds.
Whereas the custard apple segments are arranged in a honeycomb of clusters, the mangosteen is arranged in perfect symmetry within its hard and spherical cup. The dark purple exterior opens to reveal a deep magenta inner skin, and apparently the dried rind is used both medicinally and for the creation of a black dye in some parts of the world.
The mangosteen’s flavor and smell is delicate and accessible, far from the penetratingly fecund scent of say, the jackfruit. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying it. But the season is fleeting, as is perhaps the case for the best of the world’s fruits. So now’s the time to come to southern India on a fruit expedition: Carpe Diem—Carpe Fructus!