These tropical fruits are surely among the strangest looking edibles we know. Even my dog — and dogs are usually intrepid about food — cautiously approaches a rambutan. He’s not at all sure what it is, even whether it’s animal or vegetable, and you might not be either, for here is a sphere about the size of a golf ball that’s covered with pliable spines that look like wiry red hairs. Not surprisingly, the Malay word rambut means “hairy.”
At first glance, rambutans don’t look as if they’d be edible, but break open the leathery shell and inside you’ll find a smooth, pale, egg-shaped orb. It has a sizable seed that you eat around then discard. What’s nice about the rambutan, aside from its bizarre looks, is that you don’t really have to do anything with it. You can put it, once freed from its husk, in a fruit salad of other tropical fruits — pineapple, bananas, mangoes — and add a squeeze of fresh lime juice, and it’s quite nice. Some prefer to cook it in a savory dish, turn it into jam, or can it, but I think eating it just as it is probably is the best approach for those of us who don’t encounter rambutan everyday, and that would be most of us.
The charm of the rambutan lies in the process of eating it. If you look carefully, there’s a seam that runs around the covering. If you pull on it you separate the two halves of the skin and reveal the fruit, or you can tear a little hole with your nail and squeeze the fruit out. If I had a big pile of rambutans, I’d probably eat them this way. But because they are so special, I prefer to run a knife around the rambutan’s equator, then pull off the top half of the skin. The fruit is revealed, protruding from the base from the remaining half. Whether you have just a few or a lot, a rambutan makes an outstandingly exotic finish to any meal.