Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sapodillas 101

Hello! Today I’m going to tell you about the other “new” fruit I brought home from Florida: a sapodilla, the fruit of Manilkara zapota. I bought it underripe from Robert Is Here (what a fun fruit stand!) and got instructions as to how to tell when it’s ready to eat. It was ready about a week after we got home.

Remember I told you about the football-shaped sapote in my last post? Well this little potato-like “spud” is in the same family, the Sapotaceae, and like the sapote, the plant (a tree) has a sticky, latexy sap.

In fact, the sapodilla was for years a major source of “chicle,” which was the primary ingredient in American manufactured chewing gum. Sapodilla is sometimes called “chicle tree.” Did you know that even the Mayans chewed chicle? They had the original Chiclets!

We don’t know this fruit much in North America, but I have no idea why. You can ship it rather green and hard, and it ripens just fine on a shelf. It’s not hard to figure out when it’s edible. It’s not hard to cut up and eat. And lots of other people in the world love it!

With the thin skin and small seeds, there isn’t much waste, either.

It is native to Central America and has been cultivated a very long time. Today, it’s grown in its home turf (especially in Mexico), plus in the Philippines and tropical south Asia, including extensive cultivations in coastal India, where it is called baramasi, chikoo, or tree potato. (“Chikoo”: I love it! Say it aloud, and you will love it, too!)

As with most tree fruits in cultivation for centuries, there are numerous cultivars with different flavors, shapes, maturation times, and other characteristics. I don’t know what particular variety of sapodilla I ended up with, but here is what it was like.

Pictures are worth thousands of words.

Superficially, it looked a lot like an Irish potato. The skin is a lot like a kiwi’s, only without the fuzz. Yeah, more potato-like—you know how potatoes can be smooth and kinda scurfy at the same time.

Inside, the flesh was a lot like a ripe pear’s. There’s a graininess to it (stone cells, I guess), but given enough ripening it is plenty soft enough. I can see where it would be problematic if you cut it up while it was still hard.

I understand that unripe fruits can leak milky latex. Bitter stuff. So make sure it’s ripe.

The usual deal is: Cut it in half (along the “equator”), then spoon the flesh out and eat out of the cup of the rind. A lot of people eat kiwis this way.

I wanted to include it in a little fruit bowl, so I cut it into chunks. It came apart naturally into nine segments, easy to pry apart with my fingers. It was pretty neat.

I picked out all the seeds, which are curious little things. One source I read said there are usually three to six of them, and sure enough, mine had six. Only two had matured; the other four were shrunken, aborted little things.

In the pockets where the seeds rested were little white chunks of hardened latex. I ended up pitching those latex flecks along with the peel and aborted seeds, but come to think of it, I should have tried chewing that stuff. Oh well. I know there will be a next time.

All the stuff I’ve read cautions sapodilla-eaters not to swallow a seed by accident. Supposedly, the little “hook” can make the thing get lodged in your throat.

“Supposedly” . . . but the “hooks” on the seeds I got 1) weren’t hooked, they were straight; and 2) had rather flexible tips. And anyway, they were large enough you’d have to really be scarfing that fruit down in order to mistakenly swallow one of these.

The flavor? Well, Robert Is Here described it as “like pears with brown sugar”—and that’s actually pretty close.

I guess that not a lot of people cook with these. From what I’ve been able to find on the Web, the most popular way of eating them is raw, alone or combined with other ingredients. Such as other fresh fruits.

The next most common thing to do with them, I guess, is to puree or grind the flesh into a paste to use in breads, drinks and smoothies, sauces, and other preparations. Most recipes don’t leave the sapodilla flesh intact; even a recipe for sapodilla “pie” mashes the sapodilla and incorporates it into a creamy pie.

Anyway, like the mamey sapote we brought home (which was very very different, despite some external similarities, the family relationship, and similar names), this sapodilla was tasty and fun, packed with culinary promise. Perhaps someday it will take its place beside the mangoes, passion fruit, pineapples, and papayas in my beloved “weird fruit” section of the supermarket.

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