Familiar with albino asparagus cultivated in absolute darkness? Or crisp, refreshing fiddleheads plucked from the beautiful lady fern? These and many more weird and wonderful epicurean delights could be in your kitchen with a click.
Rambutan, Lychee and Longan: Of these three close relatives, the rambutan is the most alien. The spiny bright-red ball looks more like a dog toy or something from a gumball machine than anything edible. But when you peel off the outer layer, an opalescent egg emerges. The rambutan is less acidic and not quite as juicy as the lychee, which is very sweet and extremely aromatic, and the succulent longan is one of the most prized fruits in Asia. Its name translates to “Dragon Eye,” which comes from its eyeball-like appearance when the fruit is shelled. Yummy! You can find all of them at melissas.com under “Freaky Fruit.” Only rambutans are currently in season and available, at $35 for two pounds.
Buddha’s Hand: This vibrant citron looks like a yellow octopus. I first came across it a couple of weeks ago in Bakersfield, California, at Murray’s Family Farms, but have yet to find it in Las Vegas. I was amused by its tentacles and impressed by its bold flavor. While it’s often described as lemon-like, there is no juicy pulp underneath the rind. It’s a traditional temple offering during Chinese New Year, as it represents happiness, longevity and good fortune. It’s currently out of season (September to February), though you can buy yourself a tree for $80 at fast-growing-trees.com.
Fiddlehead: These curly vegetables come from ferns, particularly the Western lady fern and the Eastern ostrich fern. According to Earthy Delights, a company that’s been providing wild-harvested and sustainably foraged produce for 30 years, these dark-green eats offer a delicious blend of asparagus, green bean and artichoke flavor. They’re generally only available from March to May, so hurry up and snag some for $13 to $18 at earthy.com.
Kiwano: These orange and yellow spotted melons are also known as “African horned cucumbers.” After removing the rind, you’ll find a lime-green Jell-O-esque interior with seeds, similar to that of your run-of-the-mill cucumber. Its sweet-and-sour flavor, however, is comparable to a mix of banana, lime and tropical fruits. One company carrying the seeds is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds at rareseeds.com, where you can buy 10 for $3.
Yellow Wonder Alpine Strawberry and White Carolina Pineberry: Ever fantasized about flavorful variations of the classic strawberry? Well, your dreams have come true. Tiny alpine strawberries are described as “cotton candy with added notes of pineapple and rose” (per gardenbetty.com). As for pineberries, these hybrids are just as they sound: shaped like a strawberry in shades ranging from white to baby pink, and tasting of both pineapple and strawberry. Yellow wonder is available for $5 per 10 seeds at hirts.com, where pineberries are also available at $5 for a 4-inch pot of plants.
Baby White Asparagus: They say the more colorful the plate, the healthier it is; but these albino babies are nutritious. They’re also small, with more than 140 spears to the pound. Unlike traditional asparagus, they’re sweeter and melt in your mouth. Given the cultivation in total darkness through a patented and very labor-intensive indoor growing method, production is limited. Find them at earthy.com for $47 per pound. Pricey, but worth a taste.
Collins Long Gourd: This snake-like gourd can grow as tall as you—or taller—with a max height of about 5 feet, 8 inches. It comes in a variety of shapes, colors and sizes, and will grow up fences and trellises. Seeds are five for $5 at hirts.com.
Fred Flintstone Gourd: This gourd looks like a maraca. The unique ridge pattern on the outside makes for an interesting natural canvas, or maybe you need a new mini birdhouse? Hirts.com sells 15 seeds for $4.
Conehead Cabbage: Prymatt Conehead would be proud of this vegetable. She will no longer have to scream in fear over eggplant with the substitution of this pointed mini-cabbage. Buy 100 seeds for $3 from hirts.com.
Mexican Miniature Watermelon: This newly rediscovered heirloom is basically a watermelon the size of a quarter. Find it on Amazon through Hirt’s Gardens, at $1.63 for 15 seeds.
Chinese Red Noodle Bean: These foot-and-a-half-long beans are deep red, nutritious and have a sweet flavor. Plus, from an artistic standpoint, they retain their red color when sautéed. Get 25 seeds for $3 at hirts.com.
Velvet Pink Banana: Dr. Seuss up your world with these neon-pink bananas. The Indian plant is one of the few in the banana family that will flower and bear fruit indoors. It doesn’t grow higher than 4.5 feet, so it’s the perfect addition to your living room. Hirts.com sells 10 seeds for $3.
Blue Jarrahdale Pumpkin: This pumpkin has a blueish-grey exterior and a vibrant orange interior. Although the Australian native is the perfect décor for Halloween and Thanksgiving, it is just as edible as a regular pumpkin and tastes the same. Hirts.com sells 15 seeds for $3.
Dill’s Atlantic Giant Pumpkin: Forget about Jack and his beanstalk. This pumpkin can grow to be heavier than your entire family. Joe Jutras of Rhode Island holds the record for the world’s largest, at 1,689 pounds. Why not take a crack at it? 100 giant pumpkin seeds sell for $19 on hirts.com. Or, if you’re not that committed, there are smaller packets available on Amazon.
Titty Fruit/Nipple Fruit/Cow’s Udder/Breast Plant: Although its appearance isn’t necessarily as sexual as it sounds, I had to include it purely for its name, er, many names. This fruit is also known to have medicinal properties in the treatment of skin ailments, and it’s employed for good luck and in spiritual matters. Plus, before soap was common in villages, the titty fruit’s juice was used as laundry detergent. Hirts.com sells 10 seeds for $4.
Green Almond: The developing fruit of the almond tree can be eaten whole before the shell has hardened, while it’s still green, fuzzy and fleshy. The season is mid-April to June, so it’s prime time, and the price is currently $13 per pound at Earthy Delights.
Sea Bean: Similar to asparagus in appearance, its name is misleading, as it is neither seaweed nor bean but actually in the beet family. These beans are the meaty stems and branches of salty plants that grow over coastal North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. Earthy Delights recommends pairing them with seafood dishes to accentuate the flavor. Buy them for $14 per pound from earthy.com.
Finger Lime: Although they don’t appear too odd from the outside, the interior of each fruit holds a hundred pods or “pearlescent juice vesicles,” according to melissas.com. Unlike other citrus, these sacs are firm and pop on the tongue, releasing a lemon-lime flavor with a hint of herbaceousness. Currently out of season, it will be available again in August. However, I did find a tree for sale for $60 from fast-growing-trees.com.
Cactus Pear: These pears look exactly like a meaty hunk of cactus. They are actually the flowers of the prickly pear and several other cactus varieties. Very popular in Mexico, Central and South America, the pears are often served cold and sprinkled with brown sugar and lime juice, then topped with whipped cream for dessert. Just make sure to peel them first, unless you want their prickly skin or spines to get you. Find them online at melissas.com, where they are sold in bulk: 10 cactus pears for $22. These are also sold locally in most Hispanic markets.
Black Garlic: Prepare for a slightly sweet flavor with hints of licorice and fennel and subdued yet distinct garlic. This is what happens when you ferment whole heads under the heat for several months, according to Earthy Delights. The texture is chewy, like that of sun-dried tomatoes. Find the funky garlic for $8.25 per four ounces at earthy.com. Whole Foods also carries black garlic, selling a package for about $6.
Marble Potato: These cute little potatoes average about an inch in size and come in red, yellow, green and purple color variations. If your kid won’t eat veggies, these could be the perfect, fun addition to the dinner table. You can definitely find “baby” potatoes in most supermarkets, but there’s a lot more variety at earthy.com for $5.75 per pound. Whole Foods is currently carrying marble potatoes, but stock fluctuates.
Pawpaw: This fruit is described as having a creamy, custard-like texture and tropical flavor along the lines of mango, pineapple and banana with notes of vanilla and spice. There are also more than 40 different cultivars, each with a distinct flavor. They have a very short season and are only available for a few weeks in late summer, but now that you know, you won’t have to miss out on this unique fruit. In the meantime, try pawpaw and spicebush berry jam at earthy.com for $8.
*Note: Some of these produce items can be found away from your computer screen, locally at international markets, such as the 99 Ranch Market in Chinatown Plaza (4155 Spring Mountain Road) and the SF Supermarket in the Asian Pacific Plaza (5115 Spring Mountain Road #168). Local Mexican markets, such as Mariana’s and La Bonita, also carry some of these items, especially the prickly pear (“tuna” or nopales when referring to the entire cactus pad). Head out and see what other mystifying produce you can find!