Venomous animals and insects are often strikingly colored and marked to warn off predators or just plain nosey folks – evolutionary cues for survival and a quiet life. Maybe that’s why the rambutan and it’s close cousin, the pulasan, look so forbidding. With their threatening spikes and crimson armor, both look like accessories to violent crime. Yet, pick them up and you’ll find both soft and almost cuddly. The pulasan’s spikes are thick and rubbery, while the rambutan’s are thin and pliant – like a shock of hair (“rambut” means “hairy” in Malay).
What is dangerous though, are the swarms of fire ants that live in rambutan trees. The fruit is so sweet that people with the trees in their backyard have to fight the vicious, stinging ants off when it’s time for harvest (and let me tell you from experience that those suckers really hurt!). My granduncle used to hoist a long pole with cutters attached at the end into the tree and make fast work of the fruit while fighting off the ants. Experienced as he was, it was impossible to escape unscathed and he would always have angry, red blisters to show – as well as bunches of the juiciest, sweetest rambutans – for his efforts.
I don’t believe in fighting ants for food and am too much of a wimp, so I’m happy to buy my seasonal, twice-a-year indulgence from the markets. Grown throughout South East Asia, Australia, South America, Africa, and Hawaii, rambutans and pulasans start off green and ripen to a flaming red—though some varieties turn a bright, canary yellow. They are close relatives to the lychee and the longan. Despite the rambutan’s and pulasan’s relatively thicker rind, both can be pried open with bare hands. Some people use their teeth to make a single, strategic puncture mark before pulling both sides of the shell apart. But even market fruit can harbor territorial ants, so I prefer to keep a small blade handy instead. Once opened, the fruit within is a glossy, opaque white and looks like a hardboiled egg. You squeeze the shell lightly so the fruit pops out and into your mouth, hopefully without trickling its sticky, syrupy nectar all down your front.
The rambutan and pulasan taste remarkably similar – very much like the lychee, though without its honeyed floral notes. The pulasan though, is priced because it generally has no tart note whatsoever (unlike the rambutan’s sweet-tartness). The pulasan’s flesh is also crisper and slides obligingly off the single seed in its center, without pulling along any of the seed’s course, brown outer skin (testa). Hence, the pulasan costs two or three times more than the rambutan, whose flesh often annoyingly clings to particles of inedible testa.
Both fruits are usually eaten out-of-hand, though they can also be stewed for dessert or cooked down to a jam. The rambutan is available canned in syrup, and I’ve found the ones stuffed with pineapple to be particularly yummy. Rambutan seeds are supposedly toxic when raw, though I’ve heard of them being roasted and eaten in the Philippines. I’ve also heard that the pulasan’s seeds can be roasted and boiled for a cocoa-type drink, but I’ve not had any luck tracking down a recipe. Anyone?