Taste of the Caribbean: Sapodilla, Fruit that Feeds Your Sweet Tooth
I’m guessing that most people with a real serious sweet tooth generally shy away from fruit. Aw, who am I kidding…I am those most people, and I most definitely don’t do fruit! It hasn’t always been this way. My childhood Caribbean diet was big on nature’s candy, but somewhere along the way my body started rejecting a lot of the raw-ripe stuff. Sweets-lovers like me need fruit, of course, and on a recent visit to Tobago I found one that just might work…
It’s called Sapodilla, and it’s super, super sweet… like cotton candy… syrup… or a caramel-covered pear.
Indeed, that’s how the Tobagonians I spoke to described the taste, though there’s much more to this uncommon fruit and its tree…
First, a bit of background: Sapodilla trees originated in Mexico, but you can find them all over the Caribbean, as well as other warm-weather climes – Florida India, Thailand, Philippines, etc. The fruit itself is about the size of a small pear or potato, while the tree can grow as tall as 100-feet high. Sapodilla trees flower year-round, and in some areas, bear fruit twice-per-year. The unripened Sapodilla I encountered in Tobago were still a couple weeks from being ready to pick, according to my Tobagonian friends, and I was there in mid-January.
Now, Sapodillas may be as sweet as candy, but unlike the not-so-good-goodies most kids crave, these treats also carry a bunch of bonuses for your health and wellness. For instance, unripened Sapodilla can be boiled to extract tannin, which can be taken to treat diarrhea, coughs of colds. More widely, a pain-relieving paste is produced from Sapodilla seeds that’s apparently great for all sorts of stings and insect bites.
Harvesting Sapodilla and getting the fruit ready to eat is a bit of an art. Once ripened, the fruit is still too hard to eat, so you have to store ’em properly in order to achieve the optimal softness for consumption. Lots of different methods are employed to do so, with some people placing their Sapodilla in brown paper bags, or wrapping them up in clothes and tucking them away in a closet to speed along the process. I’ve even read that in The Bahamas people bury their Sapodilla in the ground for a number of days!
Still, how do you know when to pick ’em?
Two factors: 1) the skin must be brown, and 2) the fruit must separate cleanly and easily from the tree. By cleanly, I mean that when you pick it, you shouldn’t see any white latex stuff oozing out of the stem…not that the white ooze is a bad thing… In fact, if you like chewing gum, that white ooze was once a very, very good thing.
It’s called chicle, and yes, there is more than a bit of a coincidence between it and the Chiclets brand of chewing gum so many of us know and love. This same chicle tree sap is the stuff from which chewing gum was originally made. These days gum manufacturers use synthetic rubbers like styrene butadiene and polyethylene in place of chicle because it’s cheaper, but the base material for old school gum came right from these trees, earning Sapodillas the nickname: chewing gum tree.
So you see, there’s candy-like sweetness in the fruit, and the sap of this uncommon fruit tree – a truly sweet treat, both inside and out!
With all the nuances involved in picking and ripening Sapodillas, you’re not likely to try them during a quick trip to the Caribbean the same way you could just pick mangoes and enjoy a free lunch or breakfast. Better bet: see if you can buy a couple at a local market, or ask around at local restaurants.