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. Some people simply bite the flesh off the pit. However, you can also use a knife to cut around the diameter of the fruit and then peel the fruit off the pit. This is helpful for using rambutan in recipes.

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.

Culinary Uses for Rambutan

Rambutan are commonly eaten fresh, but they can also be used in different dishes and recipes. Here are a few examples of how rambutan might be served: 

  • As a garnish on top of desserts, like cakes, ice cream, sorbet, or tarts. 
  • Rambutan can be used to make freshly squeezed juice, or the whole fruit can be blended into smoothies.
  • Rambutan juice can be used in tropical cocktails, and the fruit can be used as drink garnish with or without its peel.
  • Peeled and pitted rambutans can be added to fruit salads. 
  • Rambutans are used as a sweet ingredient in curries and sweet sticky rice recipes.
  • If you have more rambutan fruit than can be eaten fresh, they can be cooked to make jellies or jams. 
Frequently Asked Questions
  • Can you eat the seed of a rambutan?

    It's widely believed that rambutan seeds are toxic or must be roasted or boiled before consuming. But studies have proven that a small amount, such as one or two seeds' worth, of rambutan seed fat—what makes up the bulk of the seed—is nontoxic. The seeds contain saponins, which can have negative health effects if eaten in large doses.

  • What does a rambutan taste like?

    Rambutan has a sweet, floral flavor with a touch of sourness. The flavor is most often compared to a lychee, grape, and/or ripe pear. It’s texture is juicy and firm.

  • Where can you find rambutan?

    Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines are the top rambutan-growing countries. Outside of southeast Asia, you may find rambutan at markets selling exotic produce and Asian supermarkets.

  • What makes rambutan eco-friendly?

    Rambutan seed fat can be used as an eco-friendly alternative to chemical sunscreen ingredients and as a renewable biofuel source.

  • Are rambutan shells edible?

    Rambutan shells, like rambutan seeds, contain saponins that should not be consumed in large amounts. While they are technically edible, most choose to discard them because they're so bitter.

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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View Article Sources
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