The delicious world of fruits includes mild-tasting, temperate varieties, growing on plants and trees that are not under constant assault from pests or competitive pressure from nearby plants and weeds, as well as the intense, multi-sensory experience tropical fruits.
Tropical fruits constantly fight for resources, sunlight, pollinating insects and seed-transporting animals that have a veritable buffet of goodies to choose from. It’s the reason why a mango, a perfectly ripe banana or papaya are what they are—lush, juicy, intensely aromatic when ripe, literally sugar in fruit form.
Amidst these in-your-face tropical treats, however, is an oddity—a subtle-tasting fruit called mangosteen. When Europeans first found this purple fruit with delicate white flesh in South-East Asia, they were struck by its tart yet mild mix of pineapple, lychee and peach flavours. It had a flavour profile like no other fruit. They attempted, in vain, to try and grow it in the West but it turned out that mangosteen, or Garcinia mangostana, preferred the wet and humid conditions of the tropics.
Mangosteen’s tantrums don’t end there. Even the slightest cold weather prompts the tree to pause fruit development. So, despite the fact that it was Queen Victoria’s favourite fruit, there was no choice but to import it from South-East Asia.
It is also seasonal, available only for a few weeks every year, the peak season being around June-July.
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On a holiday in Malaysia in 2007, we drove to the Cameron Highlands, a tea-producing region roughly 200km from Kuala Lumpur. En route, we encountered many vendors selling mangosteens and rambutans. My husband and I bought huge bags of both, eating them on the long drive and taking them back to the hotel to snack on. That was my introduction to both these fruits—and it was love at first bite. But since they weren’t easily available, I forgot about them—until last year.
The glut of fresh produce, including mangosteens, that came to us directly from farmers as a side effect of the lockdowns was a blessing. I spoke to Francis Jacob, the founder of the Mangosteen Fruit Express and Somanavana plantations, which offered us our first taste of mangosteens in Bengaluru. He says the supply comes from their mangosteen plantations, like Mudigere and Didupe in south Karnataka and Nayadampoyil in Kerala. Jacob says some of the mangosteen trees in Kerala are over a hundred years old; the wealthy plantation owners in these parts brought back the fruit and seed from their visits to South-East Asia and started growing it in their homesteads.
For a fruit to become truly globalised in a retail supply chain, it has to have certain characteristics—for starters, a thick protective skin that can survive the rigours of transportation and handling. It also needs to be able to ripen post-harvest so that it can be plucked when physically hard and then softened and ripened in storage (and in our homes). Given that mangosteens do not ripen after harvest, they will never become a tropical fruit you can pick up in a supermarket anywhere in the world, round the year. So it makes sense to have alternative modes of using them, in the making of spirits, for instance. Jacob says they are in the process of making a pure distilled liquor from mangosteens. A wine made from the flesh and brightly hued rind is also in the pipeline.
Other than eating the fruit with its mild but delicious flavour, I do love adding it to a smoothie bowl along with another seasonal fruit, since you don’t get as much flesh from one mangosteen. Make a nick with the pointed end of a paring knife along one side and pry open the thick skin.
Smaller-sized fruits have more flavour and the white segmented flesh is largely seedless. Larger and more mature fruits usually have a seed in a couple of the segments. Use the flesh from the smaller segments in smoothies and eat the one with the seed as is, sucking on the flesh and spitting out the seed. Mangosteens also taste amazing in a cocktail paired with the flavour of ginger.
Mangosteen Gin Cocktail
2 tbsp lime juice
4 thin slices of ginger (peeled)
1 tbsp raw cane sugar (optional)
1 can ginger ale
Peel and remove the seedless segments of the mangosteen. Blend it along with lime juice, ginger, cane sugar and ice cubes to get a smooth puree. Take two (lowball) glasses. Add one ice cube and 30ml gin to each. Divide the blended mixture between the two glasses. Top off with ginger ale and stir well.
You can also try this with unflavoured vodka instead of gin.
Mangosteen chia smoothie bowl
1 tbsp chia seeds (soaked in water for one hour)
2 mangosteens (segments)
Half mango, diced
1 tbsp mixed seeds
1 cup milk (dairy/plant-based)
1 tsp mixed seeds
Edible flower petals
In a blender, purée the soaked chia seeds, mangosteen, mango, mixed seeds, milk and two-three cubes of ice to get a smooth thick purée. Transfer to a bowl. Garnish with mixed seeds and edible flowers. Serve immediately.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book, Everyday Superfoods, released in March.