Red with tinges of green, oval-shaped and covered with 'hair'. That is what a rambutan fruit looks like. Known to botanists as Nephelium lappaceum, the rambutan is a member of the Sapindaceae family and is native to the Southeast Asia region.
Hair? What Hair?
The fruit, which is green when unripe, has thin, leathery skin and is about three to six centimetres long and three to four centimetres wide. The name 'rambutan' comes from the Malay word rambut, meaning hair. This hair is actually pliable spines which are mainly red with tinges of green at the tips. Most fruit are red in colour, however there are varieties that are yellow or orange-ish.
The fruits come in loose bunches of around 10 to 15.
The flesh of the fruit is translucent with a tinge of white. It is juicy, and has a sweet flavour that is pleasing to most palates. The seed is almond-shaped and around three centimetres long with a white centre and covered with a thin light brown shell outside1. It tastes bitter when bitten into and should not be eaten with the flesh. The flesh of a fruit that is just ripe should peel right off the seed. If the rambutan is overripe, the flesh sticks to the seed and is hard to separate and eat cleanly.
The fruit should be eaten about a week or so after harvest. If kept for a few days, the spines will begin to wilt and turn brown/black, though the fruit will still be good for eating. Once the skin begins to look withered and looks like it has lost some of its moisture, the rambutan is past its 'best before' date.
Rambutans can be kept for about three to five days after the date of purchase. The best way to keep rambutans after you have bought them is to store them in the refrigerator covered with plastic film to help slow down moisture loss. If you live in a humid country, like Malaysia, the fruit can be left out.
The rambutan is a tropical medium-sized evergreen tree that grows to a height of ten to 20 metres. The flowers are small and white. There are male trees which do not produce fruit, only male flowers2; female trees which produce female flowers; and hermaphrodite trees which produce both male and female flowers. These trees can be propagated by seed or by bud-grafting, though of course the latter method will produce quicker results. The trees fruit about twice annually.
The fruit needs to ripen on the tree before it can be harvested. To harvest the fruit, the bunches or clusters are cut from the branch, usually with a cutter on a long pole, as the trees tend to be tall. Fruits need to be handled carefully as they bruise pretty easily.
How Do I Eat It?
Once you have identified your rambutan and determined it is not a lychee, longan or even dragon fruit, you are ready to begin3.
- Either make a small cut into the skin at the equator of the fruit, or bite into the soft rind 4, or just break open the skin using a strong thumbnail5.
- Once there is a small cut in the rind, it can be easily prised open with your fingers. Mind the juice!
- You should now have a nice fruit in your hand with half the rind removed. You can now slowly squeeze it out of the other half and pop it into your mouth.
- Work the flesh off and then spit out the seed.
Rambutans are best eaten fresh but can be also found canned in syrup and stewed as a dessert. A preserve can also be made of the fruit, combining the boiled flesh with sugar and cloves.
'Rambutan' has a namesake in Tanjung Rambutan8, a small town off Ipoh, Perak. Tanjung Rambutan is the location of a famous Malaysian government-owned mental institution, Hospital Bahagia9. Childish taunts referencing Tanjung Rambutan hint that the person is mentally unstable.