Tropical Pick – A closer look at the star fruit.

Star Fruit

Why is it that fruits are always round? Don’t you ever wonder about that? I mean, why aren’t some fruits long and thin like runner beans? Or flat, like peas in a pod? No – oranges, cherries, peaches, apples, even coconuts (although hairy), are all round! Did Nature design them so that they could roll away downhill, in order to go forth and multiply more effectively? If that’s the case, then after millions of years of evolution, fruit ought to have developed little legs by now. No. There must be another reason why fruits are round. Except for just one thing, that is. Not all of them are.

The real truth of the matter is that it was all down to God. He made the world in seven days. Pretty good going. But the little-known secret is – he had help. He delegated. But somewhere towards the end of that week of furious creativity, the angel in charge of fruit – name of Del Monte – got bored. His instructions were straightforward enough – to create thousands of different sorts of round fruit – but sometime during Thursday he began to digress.

At first, he tried a few different variations in texture. He made hairy fruit and spiky fruit; and then some with wrinkles too. And it was late on the Friday afternoon that he began to disobey his orders, and started messing about with the shapes too. He made several of these, each one increasingly more complex. But his best design of all was the star fruit.

It’s hard to miss. When you’re walking around the street stalls or the markets, keep an eye out. It’s the only fruit that looks like – well – like a star. It’s not so big; three or four inches across, and it’s yellow in colour. And it’s got the same, smooth, waxy feel to it that peppers (the big round ones that were made on the Wednesday) have got. But here’s the thing: Del Monte became distracted. He spent so much time and energy on getting the star fruit’s shape perfect, that he ran out of time. And so he completely neglected the taste.

To digress for a moment – check out the durian. This mighty fruit was made on the same day – during Del Monte’s creative phase – when he had become mischievously experimental. He was into different surface textures at the time, and the
last of these that he did – the durian – he also made huge. And, being bored, he not only made it taste wonderful, but (with a sly grin) he made it smell like a dead fish, too.

However, as I was saying, he was so engrossed with perfecting the essential geometry of the little star fruit that he quite forgot to make it taste good too. But he did make it a perfect five-pointed star (when cut in cross section). And, even today, the tree it grows on still bears witness to the disobedience of its original creation. It’s an apologetic little tree – insecure
and a little. If you shake it or yell at it, the leaves close up in fright.

The fruit itself, although wonderfully exotic-looking, is loaded with oxalic acid (around 13%) and can, at best, be described as having a…‘less than mildly sweetish taste’. (Quote courtesy of the California Fruit Growers’ Association.) If I tell you that one of its main uses is to clean and polish brass and silver, then you’ll start to get the idea. The juice is also an excellent stain remover, particularly on white or light-coloured fabrics. (It tends to make big, white patches on darker things.)

No one knows for certain, but it’s believed to have derived from Sri Lanka. And, eventually (no doubt as a result of having been thrown away in disgust so many times), the unhappy little star fruit found its way to the Philippines and then on to China. From thence it migrated towards Australia, and eventually landed in the southern part of the Americas.

Curiously, there are some people that actually eat it. In Malaysia, for instance, it’s usually stewed with sugar (no doubt lots of), and also often combined with apples (probably with anything, really). As it happens, the bitter taste can be quite acceptable when combined with fish or seafood – in the same way as vinegar or lemon is. Thus the Chinese are known for squeezing the juice onto fish, whereas the Thai people often add chunks of it to seafood dishes.

However, like most tropical fruits, the star fruit is a godsend to medicine men and shaman everywhere. Take piles, for instance. In India, the bottom line is that the ripe fruit is used to reduce the activity of troublesome haemorrhoids. In
Brazil, it’s used in the treatment of skin diseases – particularly eczema. (Presumably it’s cheaper than battery acid, and no doubt just as effective.) And in the traditional Chinese Materica Medica it states that: “Star fruit increases salivary secretions and allays fever.” It makes your mouth water? Draw your own conclusions!

In any event, it’s known to the Chinese as belimbeng, and the French call it carambolier. For some obscure and gothic reason, early English explorers named it the Corolmandel Gooseberry! And the more down-to-earthA ustralians have a special name for it too – they call it five fingers. But in Thailand, it’s universally known as ma fueng.

The star fruit is certainly not the tastiest fruit on the stall, but it is spectacular, and there’s nothing else quite like it (particularly if you have some faded jewellery to restore.). And, if you come to think of it, there’s only one thing that it’s really lacking (apart from the taste that is!). When Del Monte created it, he should have gone the whole nine angelic yards and added some little feet too. That way it could have avoided the indignity of looking heavenly and yet tasting like Brasso; and it could have then just scampered away all by itself. It might have been the durian that led to Del Monte’s eventual expulsion from heaven, but the star fruit has to come a close second!

Rob De Wet