Recently, in the produce section of my local supermarket, I saw something that seemed like the ultimate marketing scam.
Someone had packaged for sale a dozen of what appeared to be the spiny brown seed balls we called “itchyballs” as kids. This apparently edible product had a name, rambutan—which I promptly forgot, so it took some effort to find more information. You get a lot of strange looks and polite withdrawals when you begin a conversation with, “Do you know anything about itchy balls?” My initial Google search listed a plethora of unpleasant personal hygiene problems and their remedies.
It turns out that rambutan is not the same as that globular fruit of the sweetgum tree we called itchyballs; even the most edible product of the misleadingly named sweetgum, its sap, isn’t sweet at all. It’s merely “mildly bitter,” as compared to the sap of another species called the black gum, which is described as “extremely sour and bitter.” Adding to the confusing terminology, itchyballs are also known as “sticker balls,” “burr balls,” and “gum balls,” the latter having great potential for an April Fool’s joke: you can buy 500 sweet gum balls on eBay for $16, but if you’re expecting bright artificial colors and flavors, you’re going to be disappointed.
The next time I saw rambutan, I picked up a package, deciding that someone, somewhere, must like it, or it would never sell, right? (Note: I’m pretty sure I saw the other three packages of rambutan on the shelf two weeks later, untouched, but by then it was too late.)
Purchase made, it was time to see what rambutan tasted like. Consulting the internet, I learned that one cuts open rambutan, to reveal a small, white, oval fruit that looks like a peeled grape. My children and I sampled them, and our conclusion was unanimous: if there were no such thing as grapes, rambutan would be a really great thing.
A few months before rambutan, we discovered the “Buddha’s Hand,” a bright yellow fruit, rounded on one end, with what appear to be tentacles emerging from the other side. Also known as fingered citron, it looks like a small squid or jellyfish that made it undetected through customs, or maybe a miniature monster from the stories of H.P. Lovecraft (“The Many-Fingered Citron” sounds about right).
Fruits like rambutan and Buddha Hands aren’t very popular here in the U.S., because they’re largely useless—or at least, they have ready replacements that are significantly less expensive. Buddha Hands smell nice, similar to lemons, but there’s a spiciness to the taste. The most common suggestion I found for using a Buddha Hand was as a garnish for an alcoholic drink; thus, I cut a couple of fingers off the fruit, Yakuza style, and later greeted my wife with a Buddha Hand-infused vodka, as she sighted the partially amputated fruit sitting atop the kitchen counter. This, as you can imagine, led naturally to the Buddha Hand’s second most commonly suggested use: conversation starter.
The third item in our unholy trio of strange produce was turmeric, which is actually a root, not a fruit. Turmeric has been touted for its health benefits, and its name even sounds like a pharmaceutical company concoction—one can easily imagine a television commercial featuring adults frolicking in a park on a sunny day, as a fast-talking narrator lists the potential health risks claimed by various sources: “Warning: turmeric may contain arsenic and lead. Turmeric should not be taken if suffering from congestive heart disease, gallstones, liver disease, jaundice or acute bilious colic. If taken for extended periods or in large quantities, turmeric can cause dizziness, blurry vision, insomnia, dry eyes, burning in the hands and feet, night sweats and steaming bone disorder.”
Borrowing a line from late-night infomercials, the warning might continue with, “But wait—there’s more!” Because the final insult is that touching turmeric can turn your skin yellow—handy on Halloween if you’re planning to be a banana, one of the Despicable Me Minions, or anything else that’s yellow, but otherwise generally undesirable.
Turmeric’s taste is described as “very bitter,” and to this I can attest firsthand knowledge. Some people like bitter, though, as proven by most of the top-rated beers these days. So if you happen to enjoy the taste of turmeric, have at it, but watch for those side effects—and maybe find yourself some black gum sap to wash it down with. Personally, I think Buddha Hand vodka’s looking pretty good by comparison.