The Tropical Fruit Rambutan: Its Nutrition and Culinary Uses

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Rambutan, known to many as hairy lychee, is a strange looking exotic fruit that on first appearances might not look edible to some. The fruit was once confined to its native South East Asia but can now be found worldwide. Rambutan can replace lychee in an

The name hairy lychee, as it is also known, appropriately describes the appearance of rambutan fruit (Nephelium lappaceum) as a kind of lychee with whiskers. Indeed, the fruit is related to the lychee and longan, although slightly larger than the aforementioned, about the size of a plum. Rambutan has a sweet, sour and fragrant taste, similar to lychee, although more acidic.

The fruit originates from Malaysia and was named after the Malayan word for hair, rambut. Historically its propagation spread throughout South East Asia and as far as Zanzibar, where it was carried by Arab traders. Nowadays rambutan is a commercial crop in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Australia, Central and North America.

The fruit is especially popular in Thailand where traditionally there are rambutan festivals and a rambutan queen is crowned. Ladies of the royal courts of Thailand are particularly skillful at fruit carving. They use techniques passed down over hundreds of years in order to prepare fruit displays for special royal events. When preparing rambutan fruit they carefully cut the delicate pericarp and flesh of the fruit to remove the seed, then replace the fruit in its skin as though it hadn’t been touched.

In Thailand, where rambutan is in season from March to October, it is considered a universal fruit. It can be found, de seeded, prepared and wrapped, at swanky up-scale supermarkets and on street stalls, sold in large red bunches, as nature intended.

Rambutan and its Nutrition: rambutan fruit is high in sugar, mainly sucrose and fructose, but low in calories, about 60 per fruit. The fruit is rich in vitamin C and contains potassium, iron, vitamin A or beta carotene, and to a lesser extent calcium, magnesium sodium, zinc, niacin, protein and fiber.

Rambutan has been used in traditional medicine in Indonesia and Malaysia for centuries as a remedy for diabetes, high blood pressure and other conditions. Aside from the fruit’s antioxidants, found in its vitamin C and beta-carotene, researchers at the Chaing Mai University in Thailand have discovered that the pulp, seeds and rind of rambutan contain powerful, plant based, antioxidants known as flavonoids. Some types of flavonoids are thought to lower cholesterol and have anti-cancerous, anti-inflammatory properties.

One of the organic compounds found in the fruit’s rind is gallic acid. Gallic acid acts as a free radical scavenger by helping to prevent oxidative damage in the body and is considered a powerful aid in the fight against cancer. Its thought that because of its high antioxidant activity, as compared with other tropical fruits such as pomegranate, rambutan peel extract could be marketed as a supplement or drug product.

Rambutan’s Culinary Uses and Storing: rambutan is perishable and once ripened will last 4 days to a week under refrigeration. Rambutan turns bright red and the flesh can be removed easily from the skin when it has ripened.

Rambutan can be substituted wherever lychee is used. In Thailand they are not usually cooked but are considered a snack food to be eaten fresh. Most often rambutan are served as dessert with ice cream and light syrup or with fruit salad. Luxury hotels in South East Asia often serve rambuten with Parma ham or smoked meats and chilled melon for breakfast. The fruit is used in seafood salads; combined with red curry paste and coconut cream to make vegetarian curry. It is also used to stuff poultry (usually duck) .Other uses for the fruit include hors-d’oeuvre, rambutan chutney or as salsa combined with other tropical fruits and vegetables.

Rambutan fruit; Chau Doc Market, Vietnam. 

Images from and with creative commons licence.


Robert Brewster
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Ron Siojo
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Peter Bilton