The Tropical Fruit Carambola: Its Nutrition and Gastronomical Uses

Popular as a food in Southeast Asia and as a decorative fruit in the west, carambola or star fruit is thought to have originated in Southeast Asia. This tropical fruit is highly nutritious and has a high acid content.
Food & Drink

Carambola is an unusual looking fruit that when cut cross-section reveals star shaped slices, hence its common name star fruit. Carambola takes its botanical name, Averrhoa carambola, from the 12th century Spanish Islamic astronomer, Averroes. The name Carambola is derived from a Portuguese word taken from Malayalam. Native to Southeast Asia, carmabola is thought to have been introduced to the Malay Peninsular and the Spice Islands by Indian and Arab traders. In the Philippines carambola is known as balimbing, not to be confused with bilimbi (Averrhoa bilimbi) which is a different genus of the Oxalidacceae botanical family.

Carambola is more popular as a food and for beverages in Southeast Asia and South America, whereas in Europe and North America it is considered more as a decorative fruit. The fruit is commercially cultivated in many of the worlds tropical regions, although the crop is labor intensive. Each individual fruit needs to be wrapped to protect it from insects. Despite this, a booming export trade spread to western markets in the late 1990’s and continues to thrive.

Carambola and its Gastronomical Uses: depending on the variety, carambolas are either green when unripe or pale yellow, turning golden yellow as they ripen. They are available in sour or sweet varieties. You can usually tell a sour variety by the shape of its ribs which are more narrow. By contrast the sweet varieties have thicker more fleshy ribs.

In southeast Asia carambola are eaten raw or sometimes slightly cooked with vegetables and seafood as in stir fry’s. Philipinos and Malaysians prefer the acidic flavor of the sour carambola which they use to make a refreshing juice, that is also good for the digestion. Another way to counteract their acidity is to add sugar and dark soya sauce. In India the fruit is sometimes used instead of mango in chutneys. Thinly sliced carambola can substitute lemon slices as a garnish for cakes, pies, cocktails and appetizers. The carambola tree produces tiny deep pink to lilac or red colored flowers, which are also used as garnish.   

Carambola and its nutrition: Carambola is rich in vitamin A, or beta carotene, vitamin C, potassium and iron. It also has a high fiber content and a small amount of protein. Carambola contains a number of acids, including oxalic acid. Oxalic acid has been linked to increased risk of kidney stones and has been known to be fatal in extremely high doses. People suffering from renal failure should not eat raw carambola fruit. Cooking carambola destroys oxalic acid.

The bitter taste of carambola is partly caused by tartaric acid. Tartaric acid is naturally found in many plants, including grapes and is responsible for the white (potassium bitartrate) crystals sometimes found on wine corks. Tartaric acid is sometimes used as a laxative and also has antioxidant properties, meaning it helps prevent the formation of harmful free radicals. Another acid found in carambola is malic acid. Malic acid, also found in apples, is responsible for the sour, yet smooth taste of carambola. Carambola is a good source of the antioxidant rich flavonoids, quercetin and rutin. Both quercetin and rutin are types of phytochemicals found mostly in the waxy, edible skin of carambola and other fruits such as apples, grapefruit and onions. Both help nutralize free radicals and have anticancer properties.

Averrhoa carambola tree flowers. Image credit, flickr.com. Primary image credit, Rae Allen.  

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