There might be billions of stars in the sky, but there’s only one star fruit.
The snack packs a singularly strange mix of sweet and sour, and, with its famous shape, easily counts as one of the most beautiful fruits known to hang on a tree. Some plants just have all the charisma!
Every star has their humble beginning, and for star fruit, that start came in Southeast Asia and the islands of the South Pacific, where the fruit has grown for millennia and been cultivated for centuries.
As ancient Austronesians started making seafaring headway ever westward, they carried the prized fruit with them, thanks in no small part to its precious supply of vitamin C, which can help keep things healthy on long voyages.
Still, as the fruit was introduced to India and the island of Sri Lanka, its star really started to rise, with the tropical climates perfectly matching the sun-worshipping fruit’s warm weather desires. And that’s where British colonists first came across the dazzling creations, and decided to take some home with them – more as ornamental plants than for eating.
Subsequently, as star fruits made the long trek north to Europe, they enchanted nearly every culture they came across, eventually becoming a major crop in Spain and hitching westward rides on the country’s wooden ships, where they ran smack into the islands of the Caribbean. Star fruit’s popularity across the island chain was both instant and enduring, and today, the fruit is still one of the most well-represented crops of the region.
Conquistador leaps from the islands to the Americas completed the star fruit’s circumnavigation, though the trees weren’t first commercially grown in the U.S. until the 1880s, when a nursery in Florida took on the strange seedling, selling the plants primarily as ornamental greenery, as the fruit itself was considered too astringent for many.
Yet that aversion to the fruit’s flavor hasn’t seemed to stop its meteoric rise – and today, it’s grown in America’s warmest regions from Hawaii to Florida, along with a number of other tropical countries, which have developed a few different types of star fruits for the market.
Still, star fruit is technically a stage name.
The fruit also goes by a number of nicknames, including balimbing, five-finger, kamaranga, kamruk, khe, nak fuang, ma fueang, yang-táo, and zibline. Its official scientific designation, however, is the Averrhoa carambola, or carambola for short.
All of the different types of star fruit share one major characteristic: The shape from which the fruit takes its name. On the outside, the fruit may look strange, with several steep ridges starkly jutting out from a central point. But slicing the fruit at a cross-section reveals the perfect silhouette of a star.
Yet, it’s what’s on the inside that truly counts, and here, star fruits take wildly different tacks.
There are two major varieties of the fruit: Sweet and tart.
The tart types of star fruit are typically smaller, and taste very sour. Traditionally, these trees were used ornamentally, since the fruit was a little too caustic for many pallets. And in some cases, it doesn’t even come down to taste as much biology.
Tart star fruits are actually full of oxalic acid, which is pretty potent stuff that can actually interfere or inflame cases of kidney disease. The compound can also have bad reactions to certain types of medication – so when seeking out tart star fruit, proceed with caution!
Sweet star fruits are much more popular, thanks to their mellowed-out taste. Still, these types of star fruits are far from sugary – they’re just sweet enough, with a bit of a bitter undertone that makes the whole experience pretty pleasant and well-balanced.
Both types of star fruit, though, include flesh that bites like a grape when ripe, a smell that’s been described as everything from apple to pear to citrus, and an entirely edible – though slightly waxy – skin, which comes in different shades of yellow and green.
They’re also both used in making a wide variety of culinary concoctions, from jams and jellies to relishes and even wine!
But whether it’s their taste and color or simply their aesthetic, this fruit’s a star at any stand.