What Is Rambutan and How to Eat It

Inside fruit of a rambutan

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Native to southeast Asia, rambutan is a unique type of fruit that grows best in the tropical climates of Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia—though it also grows in Mexico and Hawaii.

It’s best known for the soft, flexible spikes—called spinterns—that grow from the outside of its thick skin. In fact, these spinterns helped give the rambutan its name, which comes from the Malay word for “hair.”

Once you break inside the beautiful-yet-rough exterior, rambutans offer a floral, sweet flavor similar to a grape. Scientists, however, are looking to these colorful fruits for more sustainable uses beyond the plate.

Rambutan vs. Lychee

If you’re thinking, “that sounds a lot like a lychee,” you’d be correct! Rambutan and lychee are both members of the Sapindaceae—or soapberry—family, so they are basically cousins in the tropical fruit world.

There are a few significant differences between the two, but they’re primarily aesthetic. Both have similar reddish-colored skin with hints of pink and beige, only rambutan also has slightly thick, yellow or green hairs that stick out of the exterior. Lychee, on the other hand, has a slightly bumpy skin with no hair and tends to be smaller in size.

Lychee and rambutan also both have white flesh with an inedible seed in the middle, though the flesh of the lychee is more crisp, juicy, and sweet than that of a rambutan.

How to Eat Rambutan

rambutan on hand ready to eat
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It takes rambutan trees at least three months after flowering to produce the bright red color that indicates the fruit's ripeness. Rambutans grow in clusters like grape bunches that are cut off together in a single group.

The fruits are best enjoyed right after harvesting since they begin to lose moisture rapidly after being picked, but they can also be kept covered (to retain water) in the refrigerator for up to one week. Rambutans are most commonly eaten on their own but also go great in smoothies, fruit salad, and even jam.

To eat a rambutan, use a sharp knife to cut a shallow sliver into the rind or chop off the tip of the fruit where the stem connects. Gently tear the skin open to expose the fruit and squeeze it out of the shell. Be sure to avoid the large, bitter seed in the middle. (See video below).

All parts of the rambutan fruit contain important bioactive compounds. The edible part of the fruit is known for being rich in carbohydrates, lipids, phosphorus, vitamin C, niacin, iron, calcium, copper, protein, and fiber.

The peel’s high content of antioxidants has also been shown to possess bioactive nutrient chemicals with antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti-diabetic, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and anti-hypoglycemic effects in various tests.

Environmental Impact

Rambutan fruit growing on tree

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Studies show that these little fruits could have potential as a low-cost additive for increasing efficiency in sunscreens. Research in 2020 found that using the extract could result in a 45% reduction in the cost of sunscreen production. Additionally, methods for extracting fat from rambutan seeds, which are otherwise inedible, are currently being examined as an alternative edible fat.

Fermented waste from rotten rambutan has been studied as a renewable biofuel source—specifically for the biomass briquettes used for electricity generation, heat, and cooking fuel in developing countries.

A 2017 study in Indonesia on a variety of tropical fruit waste from durian, coconut, coffee, cacao, banana, and rambutan found that rambutan represented the lowest level of ash content and the lowest energy demands to produce bio-briquettes. Renewable biomass briquettes not only produce clean and efficient energy, but also help preserve forests and help mitigate climate change.

Rambutan may have economic value, as well. The Food and Agriculture Organization agency of the United Nations organized a tree-planting project in the Philippines to increase the area’s resilience to drought, heavy rainfall, and agricultural pests and diseases, as well as serve as a source of additional income for the locals. The trees were planted in vacant plots of land and nearby forested areas with low vegetation covers, and local agroforestry rangers estimated that the trees could provide a stable income for cultivators for anywhere from 5 to 25 years.

Originally written by
Robin Shreeves
Robin Shreeves is a freelance writer who focuses on sustainability, wine, travel, food, parenting, and spirituality.
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