Mangosteens Are the Fruit Worth Flying to Southeast Asia For
Imagine a fruit that tastes like a cross between a peach and a strawberry, has sectional pieces like a tangerine, and is juicy like lychee. While it might sound like a creation straight out of the brain of Willy Wonka, such a thing actually exists. It's called the mangosteen -- a fleshy fruit native to Southeast Asia with a flavor best described as transcendent.
In Thailand, mangosteen is known as the queen of fruit (next to his majesty the durian, which is considered king) for its surprisingly complex flavor, nutritional value, and medicinal properties passed down through local Thai wisdom. It's a dark purple fruit, small and round like a baseball that -- when squeezed -- cracks open to reveal pearls of white, delicate flesh. It’s also said that back in the late 1800s, Queen Victoria proclaimed she would grant knighthood to any person who could return to England with fresh mangosteens in tow (no one was ever able to). Funny enough, the Thai word for mangosteen, mangkhut, is very similar to the Thai word for crown, or mongkrut.
Although mangosteens are believed to have originated from the Sunda Islands of Indonesia, the flourishing trees were allegedly domesticated in Thailand and Myanmar. Today, the plant grows throughout Southeast Asia in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and even southwest India -- with Thailand being the largest exporter of the purple fruit.
Mangosteen is temperamental. It only thrives in very specific climates and attempts to bring the tree to similar environments -- Florida, California, and Hawaii -- haven’t been very successful. The fruit also doesn’t fare well in transport; it spoils quickly, and is therefore highly marked up when sold in non-local spaces. In fact, Asian markets in New York and Los Angeles sell mangosteens for upwards of $18 per pound (compared to Thailand where you can get a kilogram, which is a little over two pounds, for about $3).
That being said, it's extremely rare to find fresh mangosteens stateside. Up until 2007, it was illegal to import mangosteens for fear of introducing Asian fruit flies, a cumbersome insect, to the US. Imported mangosteen have to go through a process of irradiation -- exposure to ionizing radiation -- to ensure the fruits are safe for consumption and free from any pests. Cravings for mangosteen had to be satiated with smuggled fruit and invitations to the Thai consulate. In addition to that, mangosteen season isn’t particularly long: it extends from April to July, and the journey to America can sometimes be too lengthy for a fruit that is delicate and spoils quickly.
Because of mangosteen’s scarcity, the fruit has acquired a cult-like following. A Facebook fan page for mangosteen has accrued almost 8,000 likes, with fans sharing health-related articles and cries of passion with fellow mangosteen enthusiasts. One of Thailand’s largest music festivals, the Mangosteen Music Festival, is named after the beloved fruit. Even fruit tourists make the journey to Southeast Asia to get a taste; New York Times writer, R. W. Apple Jr., wrote that, “No other fruit, for [him], is so thrillingly, intoxicatingly luscious… with so precise a balance of acid and sugar, as a ripe mangosteen.”
However, there are still year round opportunities to consume mangosteen -- as long as you don’t need to have them fresh. Canned mangosteen can be found at most East Asian grocery stores and can even be purchased online through Amazon. Mangosteen juice is also packaged and sold -- in bottles, cartons, and even cold-pressed -- both on the internet and through health shops like GNC and The Vitamin Shoppe. Even Snapple has their own bottled version of peach mangosteen juice.
If you’ve never tried mangosteen before, the flavor alone warrants a trip to Southeast Asia. The soft, white flesh melts in the mouth. It’s sweet but not cloying. It’s tangy, but won’t make your lips pucker. Mangosteen is a balance of flavor and texture -- a fruit fit for a queen.