Tropical Taste of Hawaii: The Mouth-Watering Mountain Apple
Mountain apple (botanical name Syzygium malaccense) is a beautiful fruit tree that grows in many farms and gardens in Hawaii, particularly on the rainy east side of the Big Island. It has a Hawaiian name Ohi’a ’ai (oh-hee AH eye) and several other common names including Malay apple, rose apple, or water apple. Despite its name, it is not related to the mainland apple varieties that you see in the supermarket! The mountain apple fruit does have a waxy and shiny red skin (perhaps that’s why it has “apple” in its name), but its bell-shaped body and unique taste have no resemblance to any apples of the western world.
Mountain apple is not a native species of Hawaii. It originated from Malaysia and has been widely cultivated throughout Southeast Asia, India, Central America, the Caribbean, and many tropical island countries in the South Pacific. The Polynesian voyagers were credited for introducing mountain apples to Hawaii when they first discovered the islands centuries ago.
Mountain apple is a fast growing tree and could reach 50-60 feet when mature. It can be grown easily from seeds (they germinate almost immediately in humus rich soil) and cuttings or air layering. On the Big Island, it thrives in areas that have abundant rainfall and humidity, such as Hilo and Pahoa towns or the lush Waipio valley. It can be seen growing in the wild wherever birds and animals have scattered its seeds: in the middle of a rainforest, at the bottom of a ravine, or alongside the many waterfall streams around the island. In Hilo, it is common to see a large mountain apple tree covered with hundreds of fruits in someone’s backyard and very often an entire branch will snap off because of the fruits’ weight!
MOUNTAIN APPLE BLOSSOMS
It is a magnificent sight to see a mountain apple tree in bloom. The flowers have a deep magenta-crimson color, with tiny gold specks dusting the tips of the stamens. They look like clusters of mini exploding fireworks! The lightly fragrant flowers sprout abundantly along the woody branches (or even on the main trunk) and when falling, they transform the ground underneath the tree into a glorious pink carpet! After flowering, the tree bears fruits which are light green when young and turn bright to dark red when they are ripe. If left on the tree, the ripe fruits will eventually change into a dark burgundy color and then drop to the ground. This creates a messy problem as the smashed fruits ferment and attract hordes of fruit flies! There is also a less common white variety of mountain apple growing in Hawaii, in which the trees bear lovely white blossoms (with a stronger fragrance) and delicate white fruits.
EATING MOUNTAIN APPLES
A ripe mountain apple fruit tastes sweet and very juicy. It also has a distinct rose flavor. The flesh is soft and slightly crunchy. Each fruit typically has one (sometimes two) small round seeds inside. You don’t have to peel the skin, just bite into the fruit as if you are eating a…well, apple!
Mountain apple is a major commercial fruit crop in many Southeast Asian countries (e.g. Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines) where farmers stack the bright red fruits into big piles and sell them at open air markets and fruit stands along the roadside, or transport them on little sampans heading to the floating markets. Visitors to Hawaii can find mountain apples at farmers markets between August and September when the fruits are in season. They are rarely sold in supermarkets because they tend to bruise and deteriorate quickly even in refrigerated temperature. In Hawaii, mountain apples are usually eaten fresh or made into jams and pickles. Local people also like to make a syrupy sweet wine out of the over ripened fruits. When cooked with fresh ginger, lemon juice, cinnamon and then smoothly processed in a blender, they make a delicious mountain applesauce. The colorful mountain apple blossoms are also edible and they add a delightful touch to soups or salads when used as a garnish.
HOW TO MAKE PICKLED MOUNTAIN APPLE
- 10 mountain apples
- 1-2 Thai chili peppers coarsely chopped (can substitute jalapeño peppers)
- 3-4 cloves of garlic finely chopped
- 1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (can substitute rice vinegar)
- 1 tps salt
- ½ tps sugar
Wash the mountain apples and pat them dry with a paper towel. Cut each fruit into half lengthwise, discard the seeds and trim both ends. Cut across each half into thin (about 1/8” thick) slides. In a bowl, toss mountain apple slices with lemon juice, garlic, chili pepper, salt and sugar. Spoon everything into a sterilized glass jar and close the lid tightly. Refrigerate for at least 2 days and enjoy! Pickled mountain apple is excellent with grilled fish or meat. It can be served by itself as a sweet and spicy appetizer or a side dish to accompany curry or sushi.