Africans, East Indians, Spanish, Portuguese, and other populations all converged in Central and South America, and influenced the cuisines of Latin America and the Caribbean. Fruits and vegetables migrated in and out of the southern hemisphere by way of exploration and trade. While some items, like mangoes and plantains, are readily found in most local grocery stores, other fruits and vegetables require a trip to a Latin American market or specialty gourmet shop. We also recommend online shops such as Melissa's, Frieda's, or Ecuadorian Food Delivery.
Characteristics: The world's most popular fruit originated from the Indian subcontinent but now flourishes in tropical climates throughout the world. This bean-shaped fruit is characterized by a skin that varies from lime green to rosy red to lemon yellow. The flesh is usually yellow-orange and sweet and juicy when consumed at its peak. Look for mangoes that are firm, with a little give when squeezed. From Mexico to Indonesia, mangoes are commonly eaten as raw unadorned snacks, although some people add salt and/or chile powder. Use mangoes to make chutneys and ice cream, as well as smoothies like this refreshing mango lassi.
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Characteristics: This small, lightbulb-shaped fruit actually sits on top of the stem -- the nopals -- of the prickly pear cactus, a plant native to Central and South America. Depending on the variety, a ripe prickly pear will take on the color of the flower, but here in the United States, a ripe prickly pear has a red skin. Also depending on the variety, the flavor can evoke watermelon, citrus, or strawberry. Because it is a fruit of the cactus, be careful handling it, since not all the spines may have been removed. Prickly pears can be peeled and eaten raw but can also be used to make liqueur, syrup, jellies, preserves, and candy. You can also try drinking its juice as a preventative measure against hangovers.
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Pictured, left to right: Unripe, ripe
Alternate names: Cooking banana, plátano, Adam's fig, macho banana
Characteristics: It looks like a banana, but a plantain doesn't taste like one. Harder and starchier than their cousins, plantains are almost always cooked. Unripe plantains have a green or light yellow skin; fully ripened, the skin is black. At that stage, the plantain is at its sweetest. All throughout the Caribbean and Central and South America, plantains are especially enjoyed fried. Use unripe plantains to make tostones and tajadas, the former having been twice-fried. Fry ripe plantains to make plátanos maduros.
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Alternate names: Guayaba, goyave, guyava, feijoa
Characteristics: Native to Latin America and the Caribbean, this fist-sized fruit can be found across the world from Hawaii to Egypt to Pakistan. Pictured here is white guava, although some other varieties of guava will have a bright pink interior and a dark green skin. This fruit is usually eaten raw; cut it in half and scoop out the flesh. Guava is also used to make concentrate and jelly. Latin American bakeries often sell guava cheese pastries, and in India, the fruit is used to create a cheese dish called guava halwa. Add some guava nectar for a twist on the traditional Margarita.
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Alternate names: Mamey colorado
Characteristics: The dark brown exterior and shape of this fruit make it look like a giant almond, but inside, there's a fragrant, rosy pink-orange flesh, which gets creamy, smooth, and sweet, like sweet potatoes, when ripe. Unlike many other fruits and vegetables that find suitable growing environments throughout the world, mamey remains in the New World, grown throughout South America, the Caribbean, and in Florida. Although mamey is typically eaten raw, its culinary applications are expanding; it's used to flavor ice creams, shakes, and desserts such as flan and mousse. Final note: It's pronounced "mah-MAY sa-PO-tay."
Alternate names: Tamarindo, tamarin, sampalok
Characteristics: This fruit originated in tropical Africa but has long been associated with Indian, Latin American, and Southeast Asian cooking. The brown leathery pod encases a soft, sticky pulp that tastes simultaneously sweet and sour. It is sold as a concentrate in paste or brick form, or as a dried pod (as shown here), purée, or even syrup. Popular uses for tamarind include sauces (Indian tamarind sauce), drinks (Mexican Agua de Tamarindo), and candies (Filipino sampalok).
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Alternate names: Cho-cho, christophene, mango squash, mirliton, pear squash, vegetable pear, choko, pepinella, pepinello, xuxu, xoxo
Characteristics: Pronounced "chai-YO-teh," this lime-green gourd vegetable looks like a tight fist and is about as big as an apple. Although the flavor is nondescript (a cross between a potato and a cucumber), its taste is quite versatile. Look for chayotes that are firm and without wrinkles or blemishes. Treat the vegetable like a squash: Eat it raw in salads or cook it however you'd like. In southern Louisiana, chayotes are called mirlitons and are usually served stuffed with a seasoned beef mixture.
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Alternate names: Tropical sweet potato, Cuban sweet potato, white sweet potato, batiste, batata, batata dulce, camote
Characteristics: A variety of sweet potato, boniato is native to the Caribbean. Underneath the misshapen, bumpy, red-brown skin is a white flesh that when cooked reveals a light, sweet, nutty flavor and a fluffy texture. Because oxidation will discolor the exposed flesh, try to cook it right away; otherwise, submerge the pieces in cold water until you're ready to cook them. Although mashed boniato is probably the most popular way of serving the vegetable, you can also prepare it as you would any other tuber: boiled, fried, sautéed, or boiled.
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Alternate names: Yam bean, Mexican yam bean, ahipa, saa got, Chinese potato, Mexican potato, Chinese turnip, Mexican turnip
Characteristics: Pronounced "HEEK-ah-mah," this tuber may not be much to look at with its big, round, squat shape, but underneath the rough brown skin is a flesh that is very crunchy and juicy with a subtle nutty and sweet flavor. Cooked, this vegetable adds texture and readily takes on other flavors, but enjoy jícama raw, too. Just peel and then slice before serving. In Mexico, wedges are sprinkled with lime juice and chile powder. In Vietnam, julienned jícama is sometimes used in spring rolls.
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Alternate names: Fruta bomba, lechosa, tree melon, pawpaw
Characteristics: You can find this fruit growing in tropical climates throughout the world. The two varieties most typically found in North American markets are the Mexican and the Strawberry (pictured). The Mexican (Maradol) variety is much larger, but both share the peach-colored flesh and centralized mass of edible seeds. Papaya tastes like melon although not quite as sweet, with a bit of earthiness to it. Choose papayas that are underripe so they can ripen at home. Check for ripeness by looking at the color of the skin (if it's yellow, it's ripe) as well as testing the firmness (ripe fruit should give just a little, like an avocado). In Thailand, green papayas (another variety) are used to make som tam, also known as green papaya salad. Enjoy papayas raw, like a melon, or as preserves. Because the fruit's enzymes break down muscle and other connective tissues, papaya is sometimes used to tenderize meats, but proceed with caution, since the enzymes can work too well resulting in mealy-textured meat.
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Alternate names: Nopale, prickly pear cactus pad, prickly pear cactus leaf
Characteristics: The flat, balloon-shaped, palm-sized stem of the prickly pear cactus is usually treated like a vegetable whereas the prickly pear itself is prepared like a fruit. Nopals are often cut in strips (nopalitos) and cooked, resulting in something that looks and tastes like green beans. And because of there shape and size, nopals are prime candidates for grilling. Look for pads that are a vibrant green and firm. The spines are typically already removed by the time they reach the market, but handle with care just in case.
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Alternate names: Ground tomato, husk tomato, jamberry, Mexican green tomato, Spanish tomato, tomate verde, Chinese lantern plants, fresadilla, miltomate, tomates de cascara
Characteristics: At the market you'll find these small tomato-like vegetables usually still covered with paper-thin husks. Ripe tomatillos turn yellow but they are usually prepared while still bright green because chefs prefer the not-quite-ripe tangy flavor. The dish that tomatillos are most used for is probably salsa. Try also serving raw slices in a salad, or purée them (either before or after boiling or sautéing them) to create sauces.
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Alternate names: Custard apple, sherbet fruit, chirimolla, sugar apple, sweetsop
Characteristics: This South American fruit is shaped like an artichoke and has a textured skin that's reminiscent of the vegetable, too, but what makes the cherimoya so prized is its creamy white flesh: It tastes like a blend of other tropical fruits such as pineapple and banana, with a hint of strawberry. Most people eat the fruit raw by cutting it in half and then scooping out the flesh. In the marketplace, cherimoyas are underripe with their firm, green skin. When the skin has turned brown, as shown, the flesh is ready to be eaten.
Alternate names: Cassava, manioc, mandioca, tapioca root, Brazilian arrowroot
Characteristics: This root vegetable looks like a cross between a carrot and a sweet potato. With a high starch content, raw yuca is harder than a regular white potato. Look for an even-toned, unblemished brown skin, which is usually covered in a thin layer of wax, since yuca root is prone to molding. There are two types of yuca root, bitter and sweet, the difference being the amount of a natural toxin that is found in the plant. The sweet variety is what you'll find in the marketplace. Regardless of the variety, the toxins require that yuca root be cooked before eating. Yuca root has a number of culinary uses: In southeast Asia, it is grated for cassava bibingka, a Filipino custard cake, as well as in bubble teas; in Africa, the root's usually mashed into a porridge called fufu; in South America, yuca is cooked like a potato and used as a starch thickener (yuca flour); and in the United States, yuca most often comes in the form of tapioca pudding.
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Esther Sung first joined Epicurious.com in 2006. Prior to this, she spent several years in book publishing, including at Harper Entertainment, where the proverbial three-martini lunch was sadly nowhere to be found. When not in the office, she moonlights at the Bottle Shoppe in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and through this she has developed a fondness for Syrah and Malbec. A quasi-vegetarian, she admits to having relished eating yuk hwe, a Korean raw beef dish.
Photos by Chris Astley
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