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The Frutas y Verduras of Day of the Dead

graveyard decorated for Day of the Dead Guanajuato Mexico

graveyard decorated for Day of the Dead Guanajuato Mexico

sweetbread in graveyard decorated for Day of the Dead

In the slew of social media postings leading up to Day of the Dead, there’s a good chance the food most posted about is the traditional sweet bread: Pan de Muertos. True, who doesn’t love fluffy light sweet bread scented with orange and coated all over with the sandy crunch of fine sugar?

But, whether living or dead, ‘man cannot live on bread alone’. Vegetables and fruits are necessary nourishment for the returning souls, and on Day of the Dead altars they also represent the deep connection to the source, to Mother Earth.

Let’s take a look at some of the fruits and vegetables typically found on Day of the Dead altars.

Photograph of two jicamas

Jicama

It’s said that on the altar, this tuber represents the earth from which man comes, and to which we return in death. As water is necessary for sustaining life, this watery vegetable can also serve that purpose to give the dead precious refreshment. The vine of the jicama may also be used to make an arch over the altar.

Citrus

The glow of sweet oranges and tangerines, along with the bright golden cempasuchítl flower (Mexican marigold) light the way for the dead. Their sweet juice also gives sustenance.

Photograph of a pile of tangerines with leaves

Photo of a platter of candied squash for the Day of the Dead altar

Squash

Calabaza en tacha is a preparation of small hardened squash cooked soaked in a syrup of piloncillo (raw cane sugar formed into pylon-shaped cones). Holes are bored through the wall of the squashes in order to fill the centre with the syrup before roasting. The seeds are left in – to be used by the dead to find their way back – and the sweet syrupy dish is a rich delicious treat.

Seasonal Fruits

Guayaba (guavas) and tejocotes (a Mexican crabapple) are seasonal fruits that perfume the altar and rejuvenate the soul. Both are also ingredients in ponche – a warm fruit punch that is served from Dia de los Muertos into the Christmas season.

Photo of pile of guavas, one cut in half as a flower to show pink fruit inside.

pile of cut sugar cane

SUGAR CANE

While neither fruit nor vegetable, sugar cane joins guayaba and tejocote as another ingredient in the seasonal ponche. Some say the long canes, sometimes attached together into a tripod formation, represent a place on which enemies can be hung, but most look upon it for the sweet and juicy sugar itself which family enjoys snacking on at the gravesite with the usual chile and lime.

To honor the memory of the dead, It’s important to personalize the ofrenda, so other favorite fruits like papaya, or cooked plantain might also be offered. The dearly departed deserve plenty of sweet sustenance in order to refresh them, and to ease the soul’s long journey back to its resting place.

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Huatulco’s Fresh Fruit Gem: Hagia Sofia

In the winter months, that special breed known as “Snowbirds”

fly south to enjoy the “Bahias de Huatulco” – the numerous bays that make up this Pacific coast of Oaxaca. Some stay for months, others arrive on the many large cruise ships that dock there and explore for the day.

Huatulco is well-known for diving and snorkelling, for surfing and other water sports. Fewer visitors think to venture inland to the mountains.

But a short drive north of the town of Santa Maria de Huatulco, there is a lush and exotic eco-agriculture project called Hagia Sofia, a labour of love by one man, Armando Canavati Nader, who recognized the potential of the region to grow exotic fruits that, while not native to the region, are well suited and are sought after on the export market, much due to their “superfood” potential.

 

noni fruit
Noni fruit, native to Southeast Asia/ Australasia

Fruits native to Southeast Asia, like mangosteen, and the noni, sought after for its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory , anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties (basically, keeping all ill health at bay..) and used as a super-juice ingredient and as a supplement – both may have commercial viability. in my conversation with Armando, he spoke of these fruits known for their value in traditional medicine as having potential to create employment for the impoverished local indigenous communities surrounding Hagia Sofia.

 

As we wander through this lush agro-ecological plantation carambola (starfruit) glistens in the sunlight.

Other exotics too, like poma rosa (rose apple), marañon (cashew apple)along with different types of maracuya (passionfruit) and vanilla, their vines wrapping around branches and trunks and sprawling along the ground. Let’s also not forget cacao – I had no idea how it grew from the tree! – and coffee. As native trees are cleared throughout Mexico to make way for commercial orchards, the work of people like Armando to preserve and protect native fruit-bearing trees and plants is all the more important. Different species of mango; trees of chicosapote, with its heavenly sweet fruit and the latex sap which is the origin of “chicle” : natural chewing gum,  and other zapotes – negro and blanco.

 

 

Aside from fruits trees… oh, the exotic flowers! With all its lush growth, Hagia Sofia is a natural sanctuary for butterflies and birds.

As the sun climbs high  in the sky and you’re sweating from a bit of an uphill climb (nothing treacherous), there’s an opportunity to cool off either in, or beside, the spray of the Magdalena river. It’s both refreshing and well-timed.

To top off the day, a lovely simple lunch is served from an open kitchen with wood-fired comal. The ingredients come, in part from the property, and the rest from the local community depending on what’s in season.

 

 

In words I have taken from their own website – because it can’t be said better:  “Hagia Sofía is a paradise to return to nature and spiritual peace”.

 

Armando serving up a delicious lunch of quesadillas, nopales and beans

 

 

 

 

“www.hagiasofia.mx” for all information and reservations can be made on email via “reservaciones@hagiasofia.mx” Right in town, near the surf shops by the docks, you can also  go directly to the office of Hagia Sofia to book your visit.

Super-Fruit from a Cactus – Garambullo

Think you are seeing blueberries?

Think you are seeing blueberries? Nope, these are garambullo,  one of many cactus fruits enjoyed by locals in the central parts of Mexico. Like other  red-purple-blue fruits such as cranberry, pomegranate and blueberries, the pigment indicates high levels of anthocyenins which is among those flavonoids highly recommended for good health.

Wait…what are flavonoids again?

Just think about eating a broad spectrum of color – each colour group plays a role in protecting your body’s cells against disease and boosting function of organs. This particular red-blue family is understood overall to be anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial; for guarding the  liver against damage, reducing blood pressure, improving eyesight. And if you have heard before of “free radicals” these anthocyanins scavenge for them. Feel better? You should– free radicals are troublemakers; un-paired molecules that float around damaging  healthy cells which, in the worst case scenarios, leads to cancer and heart disease.

Now that you know ‘why’, let’s talk about ‘how’ to enjoy garambullo fruits.

When you are in parts of Central Mexico (from Queretaro, north to San Luis Potosí, generally) where cactus dominate the landscape, you’ll find garambullo in season in May. It’s a short season, but the harvest is frozen, so thereafter you can find it … well, until it runs out. As a paleta (popsicle) or nieve (fruit sorbet) it’s absolutely delicious. Slightly blueberry, a bit of grape or raspberry to the flavor, and a color of technicolor magenta. While there will be added sugar, there is not much–the fresh fruit flavor is allowed to shine through and the little seeds just slip down your throat easily. You could easily justify it as a ‘not-so-guilty- pleasure’.
Right now, I am experimenting with using it to make a  naturally fermented fruit vinegar. You can follow any standard recipe you like.
Try this link for some ideas
http://www.instructables.com/id/Fruit-Vinegars/
Any thoughts on other ways to use these special fruits?  I’d love to hear your ideas!

Aliens in Chiapas

‘Day of the Triffids’ came to mind as I witnessed enormous mounds of golfball-sized hairy red fruits, like peculiar creatures, swarming the area around the central market of San Cristóbal de las Casas, borne in chariots wheeled about by local vendors.

Rambutan is a fruit I was familiar with from Asian markets, but for a moment, I was confused. Was it native to Mexico and I’d thought it was Asian? After all, the pitahaya, a fruit native to Mexico, had become better known as ‘dragonfruit’ as Asian markets dominated its export, after re-branding it with a catchy name.

The subtropical climate of Chiapas is ideal for growing rambutan

In fact, the climate of the Soconusco region of Chiapas happens to be ideal for growing these and other exotic fruits native to Southeast Asia. In the mid-1980s, Alfonso Pérez Romero, a Mexican specialist in botany, brought seeds,  collected in Asia, of rambutan and other exotic fruits, recognizing  the great demand by about 10 million Asians living in the United States (and Canada), not to mention the Asian population in Mexico itself.

It’s turned out to be a worthwhile commercial effort with thousands of tons of these fruits exported by Mexico to the US each year. In fact, its flavor is reported to be superior to the rambutan imported from SE Asia.

 

You wouldn’t think such a cute fruit could kill.

More recently, however, an alarming question was raised by this article about a mysterious illness in India causing children to suddenly die. About 100 deaths each year reported over 20 years. New research, published in the medical journal The Lancet suggests they were poisoned by a toxin contained in lychee fruits:

“Most of the victims were poor children in India’s main lychee-producing region who ate (lychee) fruit that had fallen on to the ground in orchards”

rambutan fleshLychee contains hypoglycin, a toxin that prevents the body from making glucose. Ackee fruit contains the same toxin and similar illnesses, though rarely fatal,  have been reported in the Caribbean. Rambutan contains the very same toxin as both these fruits.  In India, once health officials had a grasp of what was happening, and were able to deliver advice to parents that they should ensure young children got an evening meal and not eat too many of the lychees, the number of reported deaths dropped dramatically.

What about the children of Chiapas, Mexico? This new fruit is a novelty: sweet, refreshing and fun to eat. In this state where there is poverty and illiteracy, and where this fruit has not been tested by centuries of traditional wisdom, it’s not a stretch to think that there may be not a few children who come upon these fruits and fill their little tummies. Has this information of the potential harm it can do reached those families who grow, harvest and sell this fruit? It’s fortunate that the native subsistence foods of corn and beans are ubiquitous and abundant where this alien fruit is grown, hence –one would hope – ensuring that those children are not eating this fruit on empty stomachs.

Rambutan may be good for the economy of this region of Chiapas, but there’s always more than economics to consider when it comes to agriculture and food supply.

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READ MORE:

Following articles are in Spanish:
http://www.radioformula.com.mx/notas.asp?Idn=351169
https://www.elheraldodechiapas.com.mx/republica/temen-productores-que-trump-rechace-exportacion-de-rambutan-de-chiapas/

In Season- Membrillo (Quince)

quince-membrillo-bowl2

 

mem-BREE-yo

The quince is not native to Mexico, nor is it widely cultivated here. Its native origin is in Central to Southwest Asia: Turkey, Iran and into Morocco where it is a popular ingredient in tajines. From there, it would have entered Spain, which is likely how its seed was transported to Mexico.  It grows on woody hillsides and orchards, so wherever you might find an apple tree there might also be a quince growing wild. The fruit comes into season in mid-late August into October, and here in Mexico it’s more likely you will find it through the local vendors who bring in produce from small orchards or the countryside, rather than from the larger vendors who bring in cultivated fruits and vegetables.

Generally, the fresh fruit is not eaten. The pulp is hard, somewhat woody. Its tartness mellows with cooking and floral aroma is released. Canning in syrup is a popular way to prepare and preserve it as well as jams, jellies, candies and liqueurs. It’s a nice addition to apple or pear compotes with its rosy-pink colour and firm texture. Having a high pectin content helps in gelling.

In Mexico, as well as other parts of South and Central America the membrillo is cooked, using plenty of sugar, into a pin block of firm jelly, called ate (AH-tay), or a darkish pink paste known as dulce de membrillo. The pectin level in the fruit along with the sugar, ensure that it holds up firmly. It’s delicious served with cheese, especially nutty Manchego, or soft curds spread on toasted bread or crackers and is classic Spanish tapas… A handful of almonds along with this, and a glass of sherry, or Jeréz, of course in Mexico, is exactly how I want to spend the rest of my evening…

Plátano Manzano

PLA-tan-o mahn-ZAHN-o
(I have heard/ seen this both as ‘manzana’ and ‘manzano’)
Platano manzano is the sweet, creamy ‘apple banana’ . These were harvested in Jalisco Mexico. These chubby, short
bananas are a fruit for eating uncooked; their flavour has a light apple perfume and the texture is more smooth and custardy than the standard Cavendish banana that you buy in supermarkets. Choose them as shown here – dark spots mean they are ripe and ready to eat.
Bananas are an excellent source of vitamin C, vitamin B-6, and potassium. They are low in fat and sodium, are cholesterol-free and a source of soluble fiber.
If you want a fruit to calm your nerves, this is the one– bananas contain  tryptophan, a type of protein that the body converts into serotonin – known to make you relax, improve your mood and generally make you feel happier.
Bananas can also help people trying to give up smoking, as the high levels of Vitamin C, A1, B6, B12 they contain, as well as the potassium and magnesium found in them, help the body recover from the effects of nicotine withdrawal.

Yaca, the Aphrodisiac

images-2Yaca (also spelled Yaka), or Jackfruit, is bizarre-looking, a pain in the arse to cut up and eat, and comes in a rather peculiar bumpy prehistoric-looking package that can weigh up to 15-40 Kilos! 

 

Yaca-whole-sm

While the one I handled was at the smaller end of that scale, it was still the weight of a two-year old child. And only about 40% of it is edible (unlike 2-year old children)– the remaining 60% accounts for its large seeds and a sticky latex network of membrane that holds all the bits together.

It’s native to Southeast Asia, not Mexico, but grows well in tropical lowlands,and has been naturalized in Mexico. The one I had was brought to me from Puerto Vallarta. It’s also known as Breadfruit, but for entertainment value, inspire and excite your guests by announcing its extra special ingredient, Sildenafil – the active ingredient in Viagra.

 

The flavor is tropical… tutti-frutti, you might say. Pineapple, banana, mango, and Yaca-cutlightly lemony.

The texture is starchy and fibrous. When cutting it, after my own experience, I highly recommend you oil everything that comes in contact with its insides, including yourself, as the latex gums everything up. I was not so wise and wound up with my fingers stuck together most impossibly.  Already you’re wondering if this is going to be worth the trouble…

Once it’s cut open you find, lined up along that central sticky core, pale golden yellow fleshy capsules each containing a large seed. To eat it, you must carefully pull each of these away from the core, once again to avoid the oozing latex. It is, as mentioned, an effort

images-3And while it’s not a juicy treat– the texture is more reminiscent of something that might bounce– it does have a pleasant flavor and it’s interesting to eat, especially if you are into process. And,well, if you get your fella to eat enough of it (I have not been able to find any information about exactly how much that might have to be) you might discover those secondary benefits…

Please– do let us know.

http://www.amazon.com/Aroy-D-Young-Green-Jackfruit-Brine/dp/B005QBCT4S