Hawaii – the north pacific’s beautiful tropical islands filled with swaying palm trees, hula dancing, big wave surfing and flaming sunsets. And where there is tropical weather, there are exotic fruits. From the medicinal noni juice to world-famous Maui pineapples, there are a lot of Hawaiian fruits to sink your teeth into. Some of them may seem terrifying at first glance (I’m looking at you, spiky, hairy Rambutan), but life is an adventure and exotic fruits offer juicy rewards. Promise.
It’s useful to understand that the islands of Hawaii have a rich multi-cultural history and with each new wave of immigration, the fruits of Hawaii have increased in diversity. From Polynesian to Asian to European influences, visitors today have a buffets‘-worth of delicious fruits to try. In this article, I’ll share 18 popular Hawaiian fruits to taste on your next visit to Hawaii (or see if you can find them closer to home).
1. Ohelo berries
Ohelo is a Hawaiian shrub that offers up small, tart red berries. Similar to a cranberry, Ohelo berries are an edible plant. They are a sacred Hawaiian fruit since they are thought to be the incarnation of Kaohelo, sister of Pele, goddess of volcanoes, fire and creator of Hawaii. Ohelo is one of the very few endemic native Hawaiian fruits – most of the rest were introduced after the Polynesians arrived around 400 A.D. As ohelo berries can be tart, look for ohelo sauce, jam or jelly.
Noni was brought to Hawaii by the Polynesians who filled their canoes with plants, fruits and vegetables before making the long journey north. These fruits became known as the Canoe Crops and are still some of the most popular fruits in Hawaii. The exception to that is noni fruit which is usually only taken for medicinal purposes and health benefits. Noni is a type of mulberry that has a yellow fruit and a very unfortunate smell that is likened to mouldy blue cheese. That said, if you need pain relief, noni juice is reported to be nearly as effective as morphine. My guide on Oahu, Koa, told me his granny still drinks it daily and she is 92 years old. So, it must be doing something.
Breadfruit is huge. I’m talking up to 10 lb in weight kind of huge, which is perhaps what makes it such a prized fruit in Hawaii – grow a breadfruit tree and you can feed a family forever. Related to the jackfruit and mulberry, breadfruit is another of the Canoe Crops. Breadfruit gets its name from its texture because when it’s cooked, the fruit is similar to warm bread. However, the flavour is more similar to a baked potato. Two carbs in one fruit? I’m in! Since its one of the more savoury fruits, you can find it chipped and sprinkled with Hawaiian sea salt. Yum. Breadfruit is called ‘ulu in Hawaiian.
4. Mountain apple
It might take you a few goes to guess that a mountain apple is an apple because of its unusual shape. Pear shaped and looking like a blossoming red bell, mountain apples have a delicate white flesh that has the fragrance of a rose. Elsewhere, they’re known as rose apples and plumrose. Certainly one to gift in a basket on Valentine’s Day. Mountain apples were also introduced by the Polynesians and in the Hawaiian language are called ʻōhiʻaʻai.
5. Apple banana
Apple bananas are a popular variety of banana grown in Hawaii and I first tried them from a farmer’s market on Big Island. They are so-named because they have a slight apple flavour. Personally, it was so slight that I couldn’t taste it at all – and I have enough taste buds to have an official wine tasting qualification. Apple bananas are smaller than the bananas you might be used to, and have a sweet, creamy texture. Eating banana bread from a roadside stand is one of the most iconic things to do in Maui on the famous Road to Hana.
You absolutely must try pineapple in Hawaii. Sure, you’ve probably eaten it at home, but it won’t compare to the sweet juicy fruits grown in Hawaii. There are two main competitors on the island. Dole Pineapple is based on Oahu and you may have seen their fruit canned or fresh in your local supermarket at home. Maui Gold Pineapple is the other popular pineapple type in Hawaii. It’s my favourite. Want an excuse for a cocktail? Order a mai tai, the classic tiki cocktail made from rum and pineapple. Fun fact: Pineapples are not native to Hawaii. They were introduced from South America.
Tip: pineapples can be expensive in Hawaii. I’m talking $8 (weird, right)? Pick on up in a grocery store and take it back to your accommodation to enjoy.
Coconuts are techincally a nut rather than a fruit but I can’t not mention this delicious exotic treat you’ll find in many forms throughout Hawaii. There are three popular parts of a coconut – you can drink the juice of the young green coconut (known as coconut water), eat the meat of brown coconuts or enjoy coconut milk which is made from steeping brown coconut flesh in water. Or, like me, you can enjoy it in haupia, a traditional Hawaiian dessert made with coconut cream. It also makes a wonderful ice cream. Travel tip: Never sit under a coconut tree. Death by falling coconuts is real. The Hawaiian word for coconut is niu.
You’re most likely to try guava in a POG juice in Hawaii – I tried it on Kauai. What is POG juice? It’s a blend of pineapple, orange a guava juices. Together, the sweet pineapple, acidic orange and gentle guava flavours combine to give a truly tropical taste. On its own, guava has a subtle flavour that’s a cross between a pear and a strawberry. The texture, however, is closer to a pear. There are different guava varieties including strawberry guava, apple guava and lemon guava – see if you can try them all.
9. Passion fruit
Is it just me or does the Hawaiian word for passion fruit sound much more beautiful – liliko’i? Another tropical fruit that looks a bit scary at first glance, passion fruit is a dark round ball shape that has slimy-looking eyeball flesh inside. Don’t let it put you off. This fruit is oh-so-sweet but also a bit sour. Either cut it open and eat it with a spoon (the seeds are edible). Otherwise, you can try it in a POG juice. If you’re not feeling too adventurous, look for liliko’i glazed meats and fish. All of the flavour, none of the slimy seeds.
10. Li Hing Mui Plum
Li Hing Mui Plum is a dried fruit that originates from China and although you won’t find it fresh, it’s definitely a fruit you need to try in Hawaii. The dried plums were introduced to Hawaii by Chinese plantation workers in the late 19th century. Today, you can find it on the shelves of most grocery stores, usually candied rather than salted, which was the original Chinese style. The plums are shrivelled and usually sweet and sour but you should definitely give them a try. Even if you make a funny face while you eat them.
I confess, I thought persimmon were tomatoes the fist time I saw them. Wrong. Also known as sharon fruit or kaki, persimmon is a soft, sweet fruit with an almost jelly-like flesh. How you eat it depends on the persimmon variety, but if you’re eating it ripe, you can slice it and scoop the flesh out of the skin with a spoon. While persimmon is popular, there are only a few farms cultivating it. Several of which are focused on the volcanic land of Haleakala in Maui.
It took me a long time to get on with papaya because its unpleasant smell put me off. Apparently the smell is due to the good-for-you digestive enzymes contained in papaya. It wasn’t until I tried it in Costa Rica that I came to enjoy this gentle fruit. By then I’d realised that the smell doesn’t carry into the taste. Plus, I had learned the trick of putting a squeeze of lime juice on papaya to reduce the smell. The Hawaiian papaya is sweet and soft, with a flavour and texture similar to a melon. Just ad a squeeze of lime. Unlike passion fruit, you can’t eat the seeds of a papaya.
The first time I bit into a lychee, I thought I’d eaten an eyeball. Remove the pink-scaly skin and you’ll find a pale, fragrant flesh that tastes a little like rose water. Bite through the fruit and you’ll find the pip, a smooth black seed that looks just like an eyeball centre. But don’t let that put you off. Lychees are one of the most exotic fruits you can find in Hawaii that taste pretty unique. Originally a Chinese fruit, they are a close cousin of the rambutan and longan. Feeling boozy? Order a lychee martini.
Rambutan is linked to Malaysia and Indonesia in terms of origin, but it’s readily available in Hawaii. This was such a delight to me since I fell in love with this fruit when I was travelling in Southeast Asia. I love its Vietnamese name, chôm chôm which translates as ‘messy hair’. Pretty accurate description for the fuzzy skin of this exotic fruit, don’t you think? Inside, rambutan has a soft white flesh that is a larger, juicier version of a lychee. Beware, there is a big inedible seed in the centre. Usually, rambutan is peeled and eaten as-is. Check the skin is red, showing ripeness, and the ‘messy hair’ isn’t too black, meaning it’s too ripe.
There’s nothing exotic looking about the longan. In fact, its as plain, small and brown a fruit as you can find. Yet, inside, the taste is tropical. Closely related to the lychee and rambutan, the white flesh beneath the brown skin has a beautiful fragrance that will make you peel one after another. I’d say logans are a bit easier to peel than lychee or rambutan so start there if you want to be able to pop and squeeze the fruit out, like you might with a sunflower seed. Logan berries are known as ‘dragons eyes’ in China. See, I’m not the only one worried about the eyeball looking at me.
It’s hard to take a drive in Hawaii without passing a roadside stand that’s bursting with fresh mangoes. If you live in a rainy climate like me (Britain), fresh, ripe, juicy mangoes are hard to come by. That’s the absolute opposite in the tropics – these fruits grow in Hawaii in abundance, where it seems like there are mango trees in every garden. It felt the same in Jamaica. There are three main types of mango on the islands: Hayden, Rapoza and Pirie with Hayden being the most common. Look for bright red and green skins and give the mango a bit of a press to make sure it’s soft and juicy. Mango season is fortunately a long one, lasting from May to October, which is good because mango is one of my favourite fruits in Hawaii.
17. Star fruit
Star fruit is beautiful in every way. Not only does it have a pale sunlight-yellow skin and delicate transluscent flesh, it looks like a star when you slice it. That’s because star fruit has a shape made up of five spines or ribs. Cut through it, and you get a star shaped fruit slice. Because of this, you’ll likely find star fruit served as a garnish. However, it’s worth getting a whole one as they’re fun to slice and juicy fruit to eat. Taste-wise, star fruit is less sweet than other tropical fruits on this list.
18. Sugar cane
The first sugarcane plantation opened on Maui in 1835. It was bought to Hawaii by the Europeans and heralded a new period of planting crops since the climate was ripe for growing tropical fruits. While it’s technically a grass rather than a fruit or vegetable, its still found on many fruit stalls in Hawaii. The best way to try it is to buy a sugar cane juice – taste sugar the way nature intended. Best enjoyed relaxing on one of Hawaii’s many amazing beaches, glass of exotic juice in hand.
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