Tooti Fruity12 December 2019
Upon first glance, the rambutan is a strange beast—a hard little thing, the rough size and shape of a ping-pong ball that would fit comfortably in your closed fist. The word skin describes the thick, ruby-red layer covering its flesh much better than peel does. It’s an extraordinary colour, that red—the shade of blood and heat and desire, the red a fifties Hollywood starlet would have painted her lips with, the sort of red I imagine tempted Eve to the forbidden apple. Even more perversely, the rambutan’s skin is not smooth but hairy, covered with spindly little spikes that only make it look weirder.
The correct way to break a rambutan open is to use a knife. I call that the coward’s way. If you’re a lawless rebel like me, you bite into it whole, cringing at the sudden bitterness the break in the skin fills your mouth with, then use your teeth to rip the rest of it away. (Of course, there is a very good reason why you shouldn’t do this—namely, the almost invisible white bugs that live under the spikes that you will end up chewing in half). Once the skin is discarded, a ghostly white globule remains. There is no greater contrast than that between the rambutan’s solid red exterior and the translucent, pearly flesh within.
Though the rambutan is as striking in flavour as in colour, it’s difficult to pin down precisely what it tastes like. Perhaps like the lychee, you might think, but then you would be wrong. If there is anything to take away from this piece, it’s that the rambutan is certainly not the lychee. The latter is pathetic, overrated mush; the former, the very nectar of the gods. In contrast to its vile cousin, the rambutan is neither sickly sweet nor overly juicy. Its texture is soft, but with just enough firmness to give it some bite. The flavour is light, lovely and subtle. There is a gentle sweetness, mingled with hints of an ever so exotic and elusive something else—a flavour that blooms on the tongue for a second and disappears just before you think you’ve figured out exactly what it is.
Despite its considerable size, most of the rambutan’s volume comes from the hard seed at its core. In fact, once all the fuss and frills have been stripped away, the paltry layer of white flesh clinging to the seed is the only edible bit of the fruit. All that work—the frantic peeling, the scraping away of the meat with your teeth, the careful gripping of the seed so that it doesn’t slip into your throat and literally choke you to death—all that, for barely two bites. Like the pomegranate, the rambutan is no easy conquest. It knows its own worth and is not afraid to make you work for it. Being a shy and unassuming sort myself, I can’t help but bow before such a haughty display of self-respect.
Moreover, the rambutan’s size also means that one is never quite enough. Each portion is large enough to titillate but too small to satisfy, leaving you reaching compulsively for more. The sweetness lulls you into a hypnotic haze, and you only come to your senses several hours and many dozen rambutans later, finding yourself queasy and sticky-fingered amidst a sea of red skins.
This is a feeling I know all too well. To me, the rambutan has always been nature’s scarlet temptress, whose charms I am powerless to resist. Case in point: The Almighty Rambutan Binge of 2016. It was summer, rambutan season was full swing and since my love of the fruit was known through- out the neighbourhood, some kind soul had dropped a sack of it off at my place. I hoarded this (precioussssss) sack with Gollum-like fervour, snarling at any family member who dared ask me for their fair share. That weekend, I went on a fruit bender. Two days were spent lying inert on a couch, popping one rambutan into my mouth after another in an endless stream as the pile of shells beside me grew from an anthill into a mountain.
Finally, Monday dawned. Dazed, confused and picking stray bits of fruit from my hair, I awoke from my bacchanalia, then promptly proceeded to vomit nearly non-stop for twenty-four hours. The Lord Above had seen—and punished—my gluttony. The funny thing, however, was that as soon as the nausea subsided, there was only one thing I found myself craving. Like the smitten fool who returns to the arms of the lover who once betrayed them, the power of the rambutan was such that I could not stay away.
I love the Western world’s tendency to suddenly “discover” and obsess over foods that have just come off long and lucrative careers as core elements of Eastern cuisine. It’s the cutest thing. But, though coconut water, tempeh, turmeric and ginseng have been elevated to dizzying heights of fame, the rambutan—which is their superior in every aspect—remains obscure. The injustice of this takes my breath away, and I hope that someday soon bowlfuls of rambutans will adorn every chic yoga studio and meditation retreat, and Gwyneth Paltrow will sing its praises at Goop wellness summits throughout the world.