The exotic hairy fruit called the rambutan

Penang rambutan © Adrian Cheah

In the vast range of local fruits available in Penang, the rambutan comes in a close second to the durian as a popular choice. Rambutans are tied up in bunches of 50 or 100 each and sold at roadside stalls, at marketplaces and by some fruit vendors when in season. Prices vary according to size and quality. Rambutans sold in Penang are always fresh as they come straight from the local orchards.

Penang rambutan © Adrian Cheah

It is quite common to find a tree or two of this popular fruit in the gardens of many homes in Penang, Thus, during the rambutan season, I would enjoy various varieties, via harvests shared by relatives and friends. The first thing I would do is to peel them, discarding the hairy skins that are usually crawling with ants. I would then store the fruits in an airtight container in the refrigerator. The sweet, chilled rambutans make a satisfying treat after meals, especially a fiery one with spicy curries.

The rambutan (Nephelium Lappaceum) has an ovoid shape, about 2 inches in length covered with a red or yellow peel with spiky-like hair. This is where the name rambutan comes from ("rambut" means hair in Malay). The juicy and sweetish flesh is white, almost translucent covering a seed that resembles an almond. I prefer the variety where the flesh is easily removed from the seed. Locally, this would be described as “lukang”.

rambutan © Adrian Cheah

Originally from Malaysia and Indonesia, the rambutan is cultivated throughout the tropics. Commercial production is primarily concentrated in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Honduras and Hawaii. There are over 30 species of rambutans. Rambutan trees can grow to be quite tall, reaching over 80 feet in the wild. However, those cultivated reach only about 30 feet. Rambutan can be propagated by seed or grafting.

rambutan © Adrian Cheah

The rambutan trees adapt well to the wet and humid weather of the tropics. They flourish in well-drained soils with a high organic matter content. The rainfall should be fairly well distributed throughout the year, although a short dry season is tolerated and usually induce flowering. A mature tree can produce over 200 pounds of fruits annually. The rambutan seasons (coinciding with the durian seasons) in Penang occur between July to October, with a possible second season sometimes between November through January.

pulasan © Adrian Cheah

Penang rambutans © Adrian Cheah

The pulasan looks very similar to the rambutan except that its blunt-tipped bristles are stumpy, thicker and harder. The flesh textures of both fruits look and taste almost alike. The pulasan is also tropical and thrives only in very humid regions in the tropics. From my encounters, the pulasan flesh has always been sweet whereas some rambutans can have a sourish tinge (while some varieties are extremely sour).

Available all year round to enjoy

Canned rambutans © Adrian Cheah

With modern technology, canned rambutans can be savoured throughout the year. Chilled, canned rambutans in syrup make a sweet, delicious dessert. Since only the flesh is used and seeds removed, this is a convenient way to enjoy them. Canned rambutans stuffed with pineapple cubes are also available. You can enjoy them chilled with ice cubes or with other fruits to make a delightful fruit cocktail. Rambutan jelly is easy to make as well. Canned rambutans will also work brilliantly in ice kacang, leng chee kang (sweet lotus seed soup), on top of fruit tarts or even with ice cream.

rambutan © Adrian Cheah

rambutan © Adrian Cheah

I once had a delectable burger topped with a rambutan salsa. It was a surprising creation by Nordic chef, Nizar Achmad, combining flavours ingeniously. Being a sweetish fruit with firm flesh, rambutans can be added to a salad or replace pineapple slices in traditional Chinese sweet and sour dishes. Cooking with local fruits should be encouraged and like Chef Nizar, discovering new possibilities to use them is all so exciting.

Other remedies

Some locals believe that the root extract from the rambutan tree can be used to treat fever and its bark extract for tongue diseases. Also, a poultice of crushed leaves can be placed on the forehead to relieve headaches. Having said that, I have not had the privilege to see if all these remedies are effective as I would usually reach for two convenient Panadol tablets and a glass of water.

Rambutan in art

Georgette Chen (1906-1993) was one of Singapore's pioneer artists who established the Nanyang style of painting. She included rambutans is some of her popular still-life paintings. One memorable masterpiece is entitled “Still life with rambutans, mangosteens and pineapple”. The rambutan has been the subject of many Asian artists, making it onto canvases and even batik motifs.

rambutan © Adrian Cheah

rambutan © Adrian Cheah

rambutan © Adrian Cheah

The grande dame of Peranakan Art, the late Sylvia Lee Goh (1940-2021) was a close friend of mine. She too included rambutans in some of her still-life masterpieces including “Yellow bowl and rambutans”. As a self-taught artist, Sylvia’s works had always been a search for identity, reflecting her personal mark on bonding, relationships and her daily way of life. They showcased nostalgic memories and captured personal narratives of a culture that reveled in all things beautiful. Hanging proudly in my office is one of her vibrant oil paintings of mangosteens and yellow rambutans that I will cherish a lifetime over.

rambutan © Adrian Cheah

I paint when I can find the time, indulging in a creative realm that soothes my soul. Above is one of my acrylic paintings on wood of two rambutans, one exposing its white flesh crowned with a single dewdrop. Much of my subject matter is erotic in nature and since art is highly subjective, it allows the viewers to conjure up their own interpretation. Can a single exotic rambutan exude eroticism? I believe it can, just like Georgia O’Keeffe’s larger-than-life blooms.

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rambutan © Adrian Cheah

Fast facts: Rambutan contains the following nutritional composition per 100 g of fruit: 14-14.5 g carbohydrate, 0.1 g fat, 0.7-0.9 g protein, 22 mg calcium, 30 mg phosphorous, 140 mg potassium, 2.5 mg iron, 0.01-0.1 mg niacin and 31-38.6 mg vitamin C.

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Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
© All rights reserved
Updated 26 July 2021