The Spondias genus has 10 varieties of edible fruits; ambarella being one of them.
Origin of the Ambarella Fruit:
Ambarella originates in Melanesia and Polynesia of the South Pacific. When the fruit came to the Caribbean islands, it became well adapted due to the similar climates as its homeland.
Today, the fruit grows abundantly in the soils of Sri Lanka and southern India. Other countries growing ambarella include Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Zanzibar, and Gabon. Though it’s not a major crop, the fruit grows prolifically in Central America and the northern parts of South America. Ambarellas are hobby crops in certain regions of Australia. Among Caribbean islanders, the recognition ambarellas receive is on par with papaya and mango.
Availability of Ambarella
Ambarella requires humid tropical and subtropical climates, with the exception of a few types capable of growing at cooler, higher elevations. One example of the latter is the Himalayan ambarella, which grows in the eastern Himalayan regions of India and Nepal. Like other varieties, the Himalayan ambarella also has fibrous flesh and a stringy seed. Tropical ambarella cultivars thrive in the southern states of India, including Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Goa.
India doesn’t cultivate many ambarellas, though a few markets in South India carry them when in season. Despite the country’s suitable growing conditions, ambarellas are not popular here like they are in Sri Lanka and the Caribbean. Most Indian farmers have ambarellas as shade trees for other crops, and not for their fruit.
|Ripe ambarellas are golden|
Where to find Ambarella in India:
Ambarellas aren’t a staple in Indian pantries, though it’s a beloved souring agent in the cities along the Konkan coast. Instead, shoppers stumble upon the fruit while going for drives or when picking up tamarind paste—perhaps an ambarella is hanging in an unsuspecting garden with other ancient trees, or maybe it’s nestled behind a bold, colorful mango tree.
When sellers pawn off this sour-tasting fruit, it will likely be sitting next to chow chow in a rickety shop. Or, it’s languishing on a faded blue pushcart parked on dusty crossroad. If an ambarella junkie seeks the fruit’s piquant, zesty juice, it’s best to come after mango season in late summer—ambarella season shines in the fall and winter months.
The best bet of finding ambarella is coming to Kerala or Karnataka and asking a well-established local for its whereabouts. Not only will she have a spicy ambarella curry recipe passed down to her by her great-grandmother, but she’ll also know which neighbors grow a tree or two in their yard.
Checking an Ambarella for Ripeness:
Unripe ambarellas are hard and green with no hints of sweetness in its tough, fibrous flesh. Though some people enjoy eating sour, unripe fruits with a pinch of salt, others prefer to wait until they have become golden yellow. In this condition, ambarellas lose their acidic bite and become more palatable. The pit, however, hardens upon ripening.
The best ambarella has a waxy, glossy skin with no signs of bruises. Slight discoloration is natural, as is the occasional small dark spot. The aroma should be pleasant, tropical, floral and slightly musky at peak ripeness.
Taste of Ambarella:
Ambarellas possess a sour taste with a distinct crunch for a bite. The Encyclopedia of Fruits and Nuts euphemistically describes the taste as “crisp and juicy… sub acid with a pineapple fragrance and flavor.”
Similar to pickles, ambarella’s thin, lime-green skin is edible. However, ambarellas are a much more high-maintenance snack because of their large pit and its floss-like threads. Given the pit’s overbearing size, don’t expect much flesh from this fruit.
When ambarellas ripen to a golden yellow, the taste is similar to an unripe mango: crunchy, fibrous and mildly sweet.
Nutritional Value of Ambarella:
According to the Sri Lanka Agriculture Department, the edible portion of an ambarella contains the following nutritional value per 100g:
.2g protein (negligible)
.1g fat (negligible)
12.4 g carb
56 mg calcium: 5.7% RDI
67 mg phosphorous: 6.7% RDI
.3 mg of iron: 1.6% RDI
205 ug carotene (Vitamin A): 4.1% RDI
.05 ug Thiamine (B1): 1% RDI
.02 ug of Riboflavin (B2): negligible
36 mg Vitamin C: 60% RDI
Health Benefits of Ambarella:
The Sri Lanka Agriculture Department recommends ambarella for diabetes mellitus, indigestion, urinary tract infections, hypertension and hemorrhoids. The fruit is also used to treat sores, wounds and burns, while the leaves and bark treat other maladies including dysentery, cracked tongue, and thrush.
Fijians use ambarella for other purposes, too. As per the book, “Fijian Medicinal Plants,” locals make a decoction of the leaves as a wash for sore eyes. The roots are believed to have contraceptive properties, which may be one reason for their additional use as an abortifacient.
The scientific community has affirmed some of these health benefits and more:
--According to a study published in a 2013 edition of the Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine, ambarella fruit and leaves extracts exhibit strong antimicrobial, antioxidant, cytotoxic and thrombolytic activity.
How to Open/Cut:
Slice an ambarella like a mango by cutting the flesh alongside the big, hairy pit. Given that the fruit is no larger than an egg, do not expect to extract much flesh. It’s possible to eat the fruit out of hand, but be mindful of the oblong pit in the center.
If ambarellas need further ripening, keep them at room temperature: Over the course of a week, the fruits will reach maturity.
Ambarellas keep for an additional two weeks when placed in the refrigerator. Though the taste will not be adversely affected, expect the fruits to lose their golden luster during cool storage. Let ambarellas sit at room temperature for an hour before consuming: they will have a more robust flavor profile compared to cold fruits.
Do not chill the fruits below 5C, as ambarellas are highly susceptible to chilling injury. When frozen, ambarellas show deep pits in their skin, and some develop fungal decay.
Ambarella Recipe Ideas:
Several countries utilize ambarellas in local dishes:
Sri Lankans make pickled chutney from raw ambarella. Natives also enjoy eating raw ambarellas with a bit of chili powder and salt.
Locals in Malaysia and Indonesia have a penchant for eating ambarella wedges with fish sauce.
The Vietnamese soak ambarellas in liquid and then artificially sweeten them to taste like licorice.
In Jamaica, they juice the fruit and add ginger and sugar.
--One common ambarella curry recipe in the south of India entails simmering the fruit in coconut milk with other vegetables—the fruit imparts a sour taste that balances the rich creaminess of the coconut.
--Use grated ripe, yellow ambarella as a substitute for raw papaya or raw mango.
--Make a classic Trinidad favorite of ambarella chutney: simply pulse the chopped ambarella flesh with garlic, salt and pepper into a chunky texture. Trinidadians add a pungent herb called “chadon beni,” or, “culantro,” but any herb on-hand will work—coriander, basil, parsley, and dill are adequate substitutes.
--Create a Sri Lankan curry by cutting the ambarella into halves. Boil the fruits in water and remove the skin once drained and cooled. In a shallow pan, heat oil and add mustard seeds. When the seeds are popping, add onions and garlic until brown. Then, add cinnamon, curry leaves, curry powder, turmeric, chili powder, sugar, and lastly, the ambarella fruits. Set to a low flame and add coconut milk. Simmer for 10 minutes.
--Make a condiment by pressure-cooking ambarella until soft. Once cooled, mash and de-pit the fruit, and then add salt and jaggery to the pulp. Separately, heat garlic and chilis in oil—coconut or chili oil works well. Stir the pulp briefly, and then transfer to a jar.
Fruits: Amla, apple, Asian pear, bell pepper, bilimbi, calamondin, carambola, cashew apple, cattley guava, cochin goraka, coconut, cucumber, guava, java apple, lime, kiwi, kokum, lemon, malay apple, mango, pineapple, plantain, pomelo, sour orange, soursop, sweet lime, yellow mombin.
Herbs, spices and oil: chili, coconut milk, jaggery, asafetida, salt, pepper, cilantro, garlic, ginger, mustard seed, curry leaves, cumin, vinegar, chili oil, coconut oil
Random Fact about the Ambarella:
Ambarella fruit juice doubles as a skin softener.
Spondias axillaris (Himalayan ambarella)
Spondias purpurea (purple mombin)
Spondias pinnata (wild mango/amra)
Yellow mombin, java plum, “golden apple.”