A Beginner's Guide to All of the Amazing Fruit in Colombia
How to navigate produce in a country that grows just about everything.
A version of this story first appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2016.
Colombia is the finest nation on Earth when it comes to eating fruit. The country boasts mountains, jungles, deserts, and coasts, providing an environment conducive to growing any fruit you can imagine and plenty more you can't, from sweet to sour to savory, and everything in between. Adventurous travelers quickly find their diets full of diverse flavors and their stool full of fiber in this gastronomic and gastrointestinal paradise.
Of course, the tropical standards like mango, papaya, banana, avocado, and pineapple are available in multitudes, for a fraction of the price that they cost imported. That alone would be enough to prompt a juicy and hedonistic orgy of pulp, peel, and seeds, but Colombia also offers a stunning variety of other, lesser-known fruits, some grown exclusively in the South American country.
Many of the fruits were rarely eaten whole, but rather consumed in the form of juice or smoothies. Up and down the Caribbean coast, every shack and restaurant offered a long menu of fruit juices. One of the most popular was lulo, which in its original form looks a bit like an orange tomato, while as a juice it forms a white frothy mix with a distinct citrus flavor. "You've got to try it with the star fruit," or carambolo, a crisp, yellow angular fruit, a street vendor announced in the beach-side town of Taganga, stirring up a fresh cold drink that ended up costing something like 30 cents.
Tomate de arbol, or tree tomato, look just like their namesake but are more acidic than sweet. They aren't the most delicious when eaten straight, but they make an excellent and very common drink, which is usually loaded up with sugar. Then there is mora, a type of raspberry that is blended until it transforms into a red, tangy liquid.
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Vendors have also perfected the fine art of the smoothie. The guanabana, also known as soursop, looks a bit like a green spiky pineapple and has a distinct mango flavor to it, and was best mixed with milk. Borojo was more difficult to find, but is treasured as a prize ingredient in a tropical milkshake.
Guayaba, or guava, straddles the line, most commonly served as juice but also delicious eaten straight, peel and all. The nispero looked like a large kiwi but tasted more like a sweet potato that had just started to putrefy.
The variety of passionfruits was a revelation. The most common is the maracuya, which has a pulpy sour fruit inside its papery yellow skin, and an inner membrane reminiscent of a Koosh ball. The granadilla was similar, but orange and with a sweeter flavor, easier to eat without leaving your lips in a permanently puckered state, best consumed by poking a hole in the skin and slurping out the smooth buttery flesh.
There are other passionfruits like the gulupa, badea, and curuba, but they proved more elusive—I did purchase something that was labeled curuba, or banana passionfruit, and looked close enough, but it turned out to be your garden-variety papaya. That's not the worst letdown you can have.
A few thousand meters higher in elevation, there was a whole different variety of things to try. Fruit stands around the central marketplace in Medellín offered some new treats. Chontodura was very starchy, like a yam, served in a bag with salt and honey. Ciruelas were little plum-like things that tasted a bit like a mix between an apple and a tomato, while the guama was sold in large green pods, like a giant bean. A woman helpfully demonstrated how to break apart the casing and devour the white, cake-like peel from around the individual black seeds inside.
Sometimes, when you can't find the produce you want on the street, the grocery store can be a fruitful location to investigate. A modern grocer in Bogotá that otherwise was reminiscent of any generic supermarket in the United States had a wealth of undiscovered fruits, ripe for the taking.
Among the discoveries were the higo, which usually means fig, which are what you think they are, but can also mean the prickly pear cactus fruit, green and egg-shaped. Then there was my favorite fruit of all: the pitihaya, or dragon fruit, instantly recognizable with its spiky pink or yellow skin. The dragon fruit isn't particularly strong-flavored, a bit like a sweet, mild kiwi, but it is ever so creamy, filled with small black seeds that give it a nice crunch and are evidently indigestible. I could eat half a dozen dragon fruits in a sitting, forgoing lunch altogether.
The amazing part is this exploration really only scratched the surface of the fruit variety that can be found in Colombia. Keep an eye peeled for others like zapote, uchuva, cherimoya, feijoa, and so much more. Check the markets, the juice stands, the grocery stores all over the country to find your own favorites. You'll try fruit you love, might find some you hate, and best of all, you probably won't be constipated.