If there’s one thing Filipinos are blessed with, it’s the abundance of tropical fruits in the country. We literally have hundreds of species of fruit, most of them edible and many a vital part of Filipino food and culture. You may not see a lot of them if you’re in the city, but take a drive in the provinces and you’ll see miles and miles of fruit plantations.
Many of our fruits are considered exotic and valuable in other countries, so we’re lucky to have them in our own backyard. If the only fruits you know are apples and oranges, it’s time you broadened your palate. Here are ten of the best fruits in Filipino cuisine.
The ubiquitous national symbol of the Philippines, the mango is known for its sweet, tart flavor and juicy flesh. Guimaras mangoes are said to be the sweetest in the world, although the Davao and Zambales varieties are in close contention. If you’re not into sweets, green mangoes might be more to your tastes. Filipinos are the only people who eat mangoes raw—usually with bagoong (shrimp paste), salt, or sugar.
Philippine bananas can be eaten by themselves or used in cooking, usually for snacks (turon and banana cue) or Filipino desserts recipes (banana cake, pancakes). There are several varieties, from the finger-sized senoritas to the large, spotted Cavendish. The saba bananas, more correctly called plantains, are thicker and often used with soups and meat dishes.
Like mangoes, Philippine pineapples are unrivaled when it comes to taste and quality. They’re said to be infinitely sweeter than Hawaiian or Australian pineapples, which are more popular outside the country. While it’s generally sold neatly peeled and sliced, Filipinos consider it a waste of perfectly good flesh. What they do is peel it as thinly as possible and painstakingly take out each ‘eye,’ so that all of the flesh stays intact.
This is one of the most widely grown fruits in the country; many people even have trees in their own backyards. Although not as sweet as mangoes or bananas, they’re one of the old-time favorites simply because they’re there all year. Ripe papayas are best eaten fresh and chilled, while semi-ripe ones are often sold with a salt and vinegar dip. Raw green ones are used in many Filipino food recipes, such as tinola (chicken stew) and atsara (pickled salad).
Langka or jackfruit is far from inviting on the outside, with its large, irregular body (it’s the largest tree-grown fruit in the world) and its thick, spiky shell. Outside Asia, it’s usually sold canned and in syrup, but most locals will tell you it’s best eaten fresh. The flesh is sweet and chewy, and the seeds are soft and slightly sticky. Langka seeds are used in many Filipino recipes, often cooked in coconut milk and mixed with meat, vegetables or other spices.
People like to joke that no part of the coconut tree goes to waste, from the roots to the tips of the leaves. But the fruit is no doubt the most versatile part of all—you can eat it fresh, drink its juice, recycle the husk, and cook with both the milk and the flesh. Coconut cream or gata is practically a staple in Filipino cooking recipes, particularly in Bicolano cuisine where it’s often used with chili.
Watermelons are said to be the ultimate summer fruit. The cool, sweet juice and crunchy flesh make it a popular dessert on hot days. Eat it in fresh wedges or use it to make a nice summer cocktail. Red watermelons are the most popular variety, but yellow watermelon is also remarkably sweet and definitely worth a try.
Fondly called the Philippine lemon, calamansi is often considered a vegetable because of its wide use in Filipino viands and meat dishes. It’s extremely easy to grow—most households have a calamansi bush in their garden—and can be used in practically every dish. Use it to season chicken and pork, fix quick sauces, or flavor up your tea.
Avocados go for up to $2 (P100) apiece in the U.S., whereas in the Philippines you can get at least three large pieces with the same value. This sweet, fleshy fruit is currently all the rage in Western countries because of its newfound health benefits—it’s rich in potassium, and vitamins B, E and K. Kids like to eat this sweet, fleshy fruit sweetened with milk or sugar; others use it in shakes, salads and desserts.
Durian is one of those fruits you either love or hate. Many people are put off by its foul odor, but once you get past that, the sweet, chewy flesh is more than rewarding. It’s one of the most valuable tropical fruits; it’s fairly expensive even in the local market. It is usually eaten fresh, but many stores sell durian shakes, durian candy, and even durian ice cream.
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Carlo Villamayor is the owner and co-author of the Filipino food blog, Kusina.ph. A devoted cook, he makes it his personal mission to spread the joy of Filipino desserts recipes with food lovers the world over. Bon appetit!