The rambutan is small in size and big on sweetness. The tropical fruit is native to South East Asia and belongs to the Sapindaceae family, which also includes the lychee, longan and pulasan. The name rambutan comes from the Malaysian and Indonesian word rambut meaning hair due to the long, protruding spores that cover its red, leathery skin. 

Origins

Rambutans are known by the scientific name Nephelium lappaceum and were first cultivated in Malaysia and Indonesia, which has the largest genetic variety. The fruit can also be found in countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. 

There were many distribution channels that led to the introduction of rambutan to various parts of the world. During the Indian Oceanic trade, the fruit was brought to Zanzibar and East Africa by Arab traders. Centuries later, the Dutch colonies throughout Asia brought the fruit to parts of South America and the Caribbean. It was eventually introduced to the Philippines from Indonesia during the 1920s. 

Today, rambutan is plentiful and popular in Asia, but it is considered a specialty produce in Australia. While importation of the fruit is prohibited, it is grown in the Northern Territory and Far North Queensland. 

Growth and harvest 

Rambutans thrive in tropical climates and are unable to handle temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius. The trees can grow up to 20 metres high and can take two to three years to start fruiting. Sandy, loam soil and hilly terrain is the ideal environment for propagation due to drainage. 

The trees are evergreen with pinnate-shaped leaves that vary in size from 10cm to 30cm long. Blooming can occur any time of the year in the right environment, but peaks in the spring to summer seasons. Rambutan comes in various red, green and golden yellow hues depending on the stage of growth. The fruit can be harvested by hand and removed by the bunch and does not continue to ripen after it has been picked.

Flavour profile and culinary applications 

Rambutans can be consumed fresh and last one to two days post-harvest. Compared to its relative, the lychee, the fruit delivers a sweeter, tarter flavour profile. The flesh is crisper in texture and contains a bright, refreshing juice. The skin can be opened by hand or with the aid of a knife and is often discarded. While it is not recommended the pit be eaten fresh, it can be consumed when roasted or cooked and it is rich in fibre. 

Pitted and skinned rambutans are often used in desserts such as ice creams, jellies and puddings because of the almost creamy flavour profile. It can also be a tangy addition to salads and cocktails.

Image credit: The Savoury Experiment