Snapshots from Asia: Tropical Fruit Feast: The Starfruit
I am a bad daughter. My dad, an aircraft engineer who keeps planes in the air for a living, forwards every piece of email he receives that carries “useful” information: “What to do if you’re being followed down a dark alley; Beware of poisonous spiders lurking in restrooms; Don’t eat red and blue foods together lest your bowels explode.” Being ungrateful, I tend to mock the information, convinced that if an email claims that drinking tomato juice while skipping will prevent disease, Dad will stockpile tomato juice while skipping ropes in earnest.
So when I read Dad’s latest email, entitled: “Starfruit can be deadly,” I was ready to dismiss it. How could such a pretty little thing cause harm? It doesn’t even have thorns! But Dad’s sources were on the money this time.
The Health Risks
Turns out that starfruit’s high levels of oxalic acid—the same substance that gives it its delectably tart flavor—can aggravate a kidney patient’s already weak organ, leading to hiccups, insomnia, confusion, convulsions, and even death.
Since everyday foods like spinach and chives harbor even higher quantities of oxalic acid without giving problems, many argue that another yet-to-be-identified substance in the starfruit, combined with oxalic acid, is the culprit. People with healthy kidneys are able to deal with both these bad guys quickly and effectively, but those with compromised kidneys don’t fare as well. There is no evidence that eating starfruit will induce kidney problems in a healthy person.
Grim news aside, these eye-catching fruit are really appetizing. Also known as carambola, belimbing, or five-angled fruit, they are crisp and thirst-quenchingly juicy with a bright, zingy flavor reminiscent of apples, grapes, and plums. Some varieties even smell like honey with a long, sweet, floral aftertaste. Hard, green starfruit will ripen to a firm, sunny yellow when kept at room temperature. The thicker and fleshier the starfruit’s ribs, the sweeter they’ll be.
Often, the “star points” will brown in the ripening process, but simply strip off the brown bits before eating (Note: the fruit itself need not be peeled). Some people choose to eat the starfruit whole from the outside in, so they can avoid the seeds in the middle. I can’t resist how pretty starfruit look when sliced crosswise to get the star shape, and will either flick the seeds away with the tip of a blade, or spit them out in a very un-ladylike fashion.
From Politics to Pickles
Starfruit have been used to describe politicians who are “many faced” or “turncoat” in Pinoy politics. I choose to embrace the fruit as multi-faceted and remarkably versatile. The Thais, Vietnamese, and Pinoys use them as a fruity souring agent in salads and savory soups. Also, starfruit salsa made with shallots and tomatoes goes brilliantly with seafood like barbecued fish, squid, or shrimp. On a sweet note, starfruit find their way into juices, jams, pickles, and baked goods, but I think them at their stunning best simply dipped in a little sea salt or sour plum powder.
Besides Asia-Pacific and South America, starfruit are grown commercially in Florida and Hawaii, so they’re a lot easier to get your hands on than most of the other tropical fruit I’ve been gushing about. Just make sure you get a clean kidney bill of health before you indulge.
About the author: Wan Yan Ling can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.