The mangosteen is an elusive tropical fruit. It’s round, purple, and smooth, about the size of a clementine, and its firm skin looks impenetrable — much like a jewel box, that skin protects a treasure nestled inside: tender segments of soft white flesh that is sweet with traces of floral tartness. The high price of this hard-to-find fruit may make you wonder how best to prepare and eat mangosteens, so as not to waste a morsel. Ultimately, the best way to enjoy a mangosteen is as simple as possible. The delicate flavour and litchi-like consistency of mangosteen are most eloquent when the fruit is served with restraint: raw, and on the half-shell.
At the stem end of the mangosteen are leaf-like calyxes. If the mangosteen is exceptionally fresh they may still be a rosy-green. On the bottom of the fruit is a tiny wooden stamp. It is the collection of stigma lobes and you should count them: Their number varies, but it corresponds exactly to the number of pure white fruit segments inside the shell. One segment is more plump than the others and contains a seed.
In most brick-and-mortar stores in the United States, mangosteens are unusual to find. (Asian fresh produce markets are an exception, and even then the fruit appears briefly because mangosteen season can be short.) Most of the mangosteens sold in the US are grown in Southeast Asia, and especially in Thailand, where they may first have been domesticated, and which grows and exports more of the fruit than any other country. The reason they remain relatively unfamiliar in the US is because the import of fresh mangosteens (and other tropical fruits) from Asia was banned until 2007 because of concerns that they would introduce an agricultural pest — a fruit fly — to the country. The ban was lifted subject to the fruit being irradiated, and imported Asian mangosteens are now permitted. (Irradiation is an ultra-violet process used on many not-organically certified fruits and vegetables, as well as meat; it sterilises pests and destroys pathogens and can extend shelf life.)
Why are mangosteens so expensive?
Two words: high maintenance. The trees won’t grow just anywhere. Garcinia mangostana is an ultra-tropical evergreen tree that flourishes only within 20 degrees of the Equator (not even Florida is sticky enough). The trees have very specific growth requirements and uneven yields, needing high but consistent temperatures, high humidity, and high—but not too high—rainfall to produce and ripen fruit. Saplings must be shaded and hate being transplanted. The trees also mature slowly, flowering only after six to eight years after being grown from seed (compare with papaya, which can produce fruit within a year). The mature trees are alternate-bearing, producing a bountiful crop one year, and a very light crop the next (and possibly the next after that, too) while the tree builds up energy again. The fruit must be ripe at harvest as it does not continue to ripen after being picked; it’s also very perishable. What’s more, irradiation itself is expensive, adding cost to treated fruit.
Beyond Southeast Asia, mangosteens are grown to a small extent in southwestern India and northeastern Australia. Mexico and Guatemala now also export mangosteens to the US. In the mid-2000s, mangosteen cultivation took off (slowly) in Puerto Rico; by 2016, the Panoramic Fruit Company was producing several tons of non-irradiated mangosteens for the US market. But in 2017 Hurricane Maria damaged the burgeoning farm severely, and owner Ian Crown is still raising funds to rebuild. Interestingly, the mature mangosteen trees themselves withstood those hurricane-force winds, “bending like rubber,” while other tropical fruit trees did not, he said in a phone call. Due to pandemic complications, his bountiful 2021 mangosteen crop was sold locally in Puerto Rico.
When and where to buy mangosteen
Here’s the mouthwatering question: When and where can you buy mangosteens? That depends on where they came from. Mangosteens ripen in the tropical rainy season. Above the equator, June to August is the primary harvest season and usually there is only one. Closer to the equator, there is a chance of a second harvest. One of the most reliable places to find fresh mangosteens is at an Asian fresh produce market in a big city during the summer. Occasionally, high-end gourmet stores may sell them priced individually, but these are generally far more expensive. When choosing fruit, look for mangosteens with deep, evenly purple colour and an undamaged shell.
Even fruit importers cite conflicting information about whether their fruit that is not from Asia must be irradiated. When it comes to Mexican mangosteens, the vendors are divided. A representative for TropicalFruitBox says that from their perspective and the guidelines they follow, “all mangosteens imported in the US are required by the USDA to be irradiated,” while a Melissa’s representative maintains that as of the last three years, that has not been a requirement. (We wrote the USDA for clarification and have not heard back, to date.)
The big question is whether irradiation affects flavour and texture. We’ve likely only enjoyed irradiated mangosteens, and they were sweet, lemony, tender, and delicious. If non-irradiated mangosteens taste better, we look forward to trying them.
How to prep and eat mangosteens
Eat your mangosteens soon after buying the fruit — they don’t improve with time. Very fresh mangosteens are still pliable and can be cracked open by being squeezed between the palms of your hand. But for most mangosteens, days or weeks from their mother tree, a sharp, serrated knife is required. Place your fruit on a cutting board and cut a shallow, careful hemisphere around it, trying not to slice into the delicate segments within. Twist, and lift off half the shell. The lovely white flesh is revealed, encircled in purple. Arrange the fruit on a platter, and serve with dessert forks to lift out each piece. It will be a memorable event.
This story first appeared on www.marthastewart.com
(Main and Feature Image Credit: Parinda Yatha / EyeEm / Getty Images)
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