Rambutans are the cool kids of the fruit game with their racy red outer shell and hairy exterior. Fairly foreign to most people in the UK, they are native to Indonesia and Malaysia, the sweet white fruit inside a common snack throughout Asia and also parts of Australia.
Its short shelf life has limited its ability to make an impact outside of the region, with the skin starting to blacken early at room temperature even though the fruit inside is still edible, meaning nearly 90% of produce is used domestically. When it comes to exporting, just 8% of the fruit, in fresh and processed form, leaves the region.
But the Thailand Institute of Scientific and Technological Research has been working on ways to roll the rambutan out to a wider audience.
Fibre and flour
While canning, freezing and using it in honey or jelly are common when exporting, Dr Panida Banjongsinsiri from the institute’s innovative health food centre said the rambutan has much more potential, according to Food Spark’s sister site Food Navigator-Asia.
“Apart from using the fruit flesh, the seed and peel can also be utilised,” she said at the ASEAN Food and Beverage Conference. “In our lab, we have extracted and dried rambutan peel, converting it into dietary fibre that can be used in products like sausages and waffles.”
Further manufacturing applications have been uncovered by the centre too, including extracting fats and oils from the fruit to use in margarine.
“We have also used the rambutan seed to make flour that can be used as a thickening agent via the methods of drying and fat extraction,” said Dr Banjongsinsiri.
Transforming rambutan into dried fruit – an area where the exotic is increasingly appearing, like jackfruit – has also been a successful product in Australia and China.
“The main issues faced by fresh product are a darkened, brown colouration of the skin, bitter aftertaste and short shelf life,” she said. “These issues were alleviated by switching from fresh to dried fruit. Drying the rambutan maintains the attractive colouration of the fruit flesh and extends shelf-life.”
Creating new value out of current produce was also a clever business strategy, added Dr Banjongsinsiri.
“R&D provides opportunities for new business, helps with zero waste management, can develop locally unique products and even target energy efficiency in businesses,” she said.
So can Sparkie see rambutans rising up?
The alternative uses sound interesting but I think that we should probably walk before we can run. If this is a method of enticing importers and retailers to take the fruit more seriously, it’s a good idea. Canned is already very common in Asian supermarkets. Beyond that, unless products like the fibre have unique benefits over things like citrus fibre which comes from peel waste, it is unlikely to do very much.
There needs to be a push towards consumers getting to know the regular fruit. Advertising has worked for things like Jazz apples who put up stands at trade shows to show off their product, so it might be an option to do the same. It is a nice fruit at the end of the day so it should really just be about ensuring that the supply chain is there and that the price is reasonable because the flavour should do enough to create a demand once it’s available.