by Esme McAvoy
What’s bright orange, shaped like a Christmas tree bauble and filled with something resembling frogspawn? Clue: it’s a fruit and chances are you’ve never seen – or tasted – one before.
Going to the market in Colombia is like one big guessing game. While overpriced supermarkets are catching on here, especially in the wealthy urban neighbourhoods, there are thankfully still plenty of fresh food markets to visit, stacked high with a colourful array of home-grown fruits and vegetables. And best of all? Most of the time, you probably won’t have a clue what’s being sold.
This week, I left our home in the north and travelled to Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, en route to Ecuador. Stopping for a night or two in ‘La Candelaria’, the city’s picturesque historic centre, I popped into one of the quarter’s oldest markets to pick up some fruit. The markets here are an image of agricultural abundance.
Colombia might have its modern cities such as Bogotá and Medellin but it’s a country that’s ultimately ‘campesino’ at heart and, in the markets above all, it shows. Whether it’s coffee, plantain, corn or exotic fruits, over a quarter of the Colombian population live in the countryside, many growing all kinds of fruits and vegetables to sell in local markets or from makeshift wooden carts that they wheel through the streets.
There's something delightfully child-like about trying a food for the very first time and, since being in Colombia, I’ve found at least 15 fruits that are completely new to me. Back in the market, I buy up five fruits I’m pretty confident most people back home in London won’t have tasted before and head back to the hostel where I’m staying for some help in describing their flavours. Chopping up the fruits with Erin, a backpacker from California, and her boyfriend Nelson from Ecuador, it’s not easy to put the new tastes into words but here’s our best shot:
So, that bright orange, Christmas bauble-shaped fruit? It’s called a granadilla (‘gran-a-dee-ya’). It’s smooth, thin, plastic-like skin cracks open and inside is a clear goo full of black, crunchy seeds ensconced in a spongy white pith. The goo is usually sucked up and eaten whole, seeds and all, like a passion fruit. Deliciously sweet, perhaps closest in taste to white grape pulp, the granadilla grows in tropical regions, hanging from vines like bunches of grapes.
“The inside looks like mushed up alien’s brains,” says Erin. I can’t vouch for that but it looks akin to frogspawn to me. “Going by its insides, it should taste horrible but it’s delicious. Really sweet and tangy.” Definitely a favourite all-round.
Another Colombian special is the lulo, a tomato-sized fruit that grows on the slopes of the Andean mountains. It has a peach-like, furry skin that’s bright-to-the-point-of-radioactive orange in colour, sometimes with a blush of deep green. Cut open, the orange-y-green inside resembles a tomato, though scooping out the flesh - its furry orange skin isn’t edible - it’s super sour and acidic, like a gooseberry. “We have lulo in Ecuador but we call it naranjilla (‘little orange’) and nobody eats it straight,” says Nelson, pulling a ‘sour’ face. In both Ecuador and Colombia, it’s reserved for making fruit juice, blitzed up in a liquidizer with some water and sugar to balance the acidity. “We also mix the juice with a alcoholic spirit made of sugar cane, some cinnamon and cloves, heat it up and serve it as a warm cocktail called canelazo,” says Nelson.
A member of the passion fruit family, the maracuyá has a thick, yellow, plastic-ky skin that’s usually shrunken and wrinkly, making it look past its best. Yet, as a kindly maracuyá grower in the market advised me, don’t judge this one by its cover. Instead you feel its weight: the heavier maracuyás are the juiciest, regardless of the wrinkly skin. Cut open, the goopy orange flesh is full of black seeds. The goop is scooped out with a spoon like a passion fruit, and the taste is even more acidic and sour than the lulo. “Wow, this one’s like a warhead!” says Erin, inexplicably. Warheads, it turns out, are super sour sweets in the States made of citric and malic acid that make your mouth water and jaw clench up. Sour-sweet to the point of artificial, it reminds me of a vitamin C supplement or the sour ‘cola bottle’ jelly sweets I loved as a kid. This fruit is another ‘just for juice’ fruit and its acidic kick makes it really refreshing with lots of ice.
This fruit at least resembles something we have back home – a cross between a raspberry, blackberry and maybe mulberry. The mora flesh and seeds are tougher than both raspberries and blackberries and the taste is really tart. Mora berries here are often whizzed into a fruit juice with milk or made into ice-lollies. They are also cooked up with cinnamon and panela – a traditional, less processed type of brown sugar that’s sold in large blocks in Colombia and Ecuador – for a jammy sort of dessert.
TOMATE DE ARBOL –
The name translates as ‘tree tomato’ and it’s a pretty good description for this delicious fruit – one of my favourites. Elliptical in shape and with a smooth, orange-y-maroon marbled skin, the tree tomato can be cut in half and flesh scooped out like a hard-boiled egg. The flesh resembles a tomato with the colour of a cantaloupe melon. Sweet and tangy, there’s a definite aftertaste of green tomato and it’s deliciously more-ish, especially as a juice.
After munching our way through the five fruits, Erin and I begin talking about a host of others that are new to our taste buds, like the chontaduro, borojó and zapote. Then Nelson tells me of one to look out for in Ecuador – the guaba. Before I can tell him airily that we so have ‘guavas’ back in England (albeit imported), he starts describing something akin to a monster runner bean, half a metre long, that locals split open to eat the soft white flesh around each of its huge black seeds. It all sounds a bit ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ to me. When I get to Ecuador, I promise to take a pic.
PS. It’s not just the new fruits that can surprise: check out the avocados here, quite literally the size of a small child’s head