Bilimbi and its relative, the starfruit, are the only edible fruits in the Averrhoa genus. When fruiting, the tree is a specimen to behold. Its trunk proliferates with small lime-green fruits. Popping purple, bright mauve, and neon yellow, orchid-like flowers blossom alongside the fruits, adding to the spectacular nature of the bilimbi tree. Given its unusual appearance, bilimbi’s other name, “the cucumber tree” is a rather apt description.
Origin of Bilimbi
Bilimbi’s native habitat is debatable, but Malaysia and the Moluccas of Indonesia are the closest contenders. Though the minority, some botanists adamantly assert Brazil as bilimbi’s origin—They claim the fruits arrived in Southeast Asia centuries after their long-standing presence in the New World.
Several Asian tropical and subtropical regions grow bilimbi, including Thailand, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Myanmar. As explained in the book, “Fruits of Warm Climates,” bilimbis migrated east by way of Timor, and then came to Jamaica’s soils circa 1793. From there, the fruit expanded to the neighboring islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Trinidad. It wasn’t long before bilimbis became popular in Central America. Today, bilimbis also grow in Venezuela, Argentina, Guyana, Surinam and Brazil.
Despite its proximity to the fruit’s wild habitat, Australia didn’t receive bilimbi until 1896.
Few countries harvest bilimbis commercially, but locals cook bilimbis and sell baskets of them when in season.
Availability of Bilimbi in India
Like carambolas, bilimbis need tropical, hot weather and an elevation not exceeding 1,000 meters. Bilimbis, however, are more susceptible to chill and wind. The states most conducive to growing bilimbis are, unsurprisingly, the hottest: Kerala, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Goa.
Bilimbis flower in February and bear fruit until December, though a few spontaneous batches might appear outside of these months. It’s rare to find a proper bilimbi orchard—most of the country’s trees live a quiet life in village backyards, schoolhouses, and the carefully curated garden of an exotic fruit lover. Other trees grow wild throughout the plains of India.
Where to find Bilimbi in India
Bilimbis are not a popular commercial crop, likely because of their sour taste and perishability. It’s also difficult to transport bilimbis long distances on account of its short, 5-day shelf life and easily bruised skin.
To find a bilimbi tree, search the village roads and markets of India’s hottest states. While there, inspect produce stands boasting a wide array of fruits and vegetables. The older generations may have insight as to the fruit’s whereabouts, as young urbanites are unlikely to know. Anyone living in India’s cold regions will not taste bilimbi any time soon, either.
Checking for Ripeness in Bilimbi
Unripe bilimbis are bright green and crisp. Like amlas, bilimbi’s skin becomes yellowish-green to white as they ripen. The best bilimbis nearly burst with juiciness, giving a polished, bright glow. Choose fruits with glossy, soft, tender skin. Avoid overripe fruits with a shrunken, dull sheen.
Never pluck bilimbis from the tree, as the ripest fall to the ground naturally. Gently touch bilimbis on the tree and only collect those that drop with a light tap or two.
Taste of Bilimbi
India’s bilimbis are too sour and astringent to consume raw: one bite harkens the taste of a mouth-puckering amla. Even at their ripest, bilimbis are a loud and bright fruit with tart, tangy, acidic, and sharp notes. Some say that the ripest bilimbis have a strawberry aftertaste. Though a sweeter variety of bilimbi grows in the Philippines, its sweetness seldom rises above a sour orange’s.
Bilimbi’s texture resembles a starfruit’s: crisp, watery, hydrating and juicy. Indeed, many bilimbi lovers make a lemonade-type beverage to capitalize on these refreshing attributes.
Nutritional Value of Bilimbi
As per the book, “Nutritive Value of Indian Foods,” 100 grams of bilimbi contains the following values:
32mg Vitamin C
Put in perspective: One fresh bilimbi weighs approximately 10.4 grams
Health Benefits of Bilimbi
Traditional medicine has used bilimbi in remedies for centuries:
--Bilimbi drinks cools fevers
--The Japanese topically apply a mashed paste to get rid of acne and rheumatism.
--When drank as a syrup, the vitamin C combats bowel hemorrhages, stomach problems, and internal hemorrhoids.
--Javanese use the leaves to reduce rectal inflammation and eat a fruit conserve to treat biliousness, coughs and beriberi
--Malays make a paste from the fruit to help new mothers heal from childbirth. They also apply bilimbi paste on the skin to reduce itching and to alleviate syphilis symptoms and other venereal diseases.
--In Asia, some use bilimbi juice as a soap or cleansing agent on account of its antibacterial properties.
Medical studies show several promising insights related to bilimbi:
--Australian researchers discovered that when used as a cleansing agent, the fruit keeps food borne diseases like salmonella at bay.
--Indian researchers found that bilimbis have the potential to treat and prevent hyperlipidemia, or, high cholesterol
--Researchers in Singapore discovered that bilimbis show anti-diabetic activities.
--A collaborative study with researchers from Brazil and Trinidad indicate that bilimbi might help control glycemic levels. The fruit also boosts muscle and liver glycogen levels.
How to Open/Cut
Bilimbi is a low-maintenance fruit—its skin is edible, and the seeds are small and negligible. Cut and prepare bilimbis like a cucumber by slicing the fruits into chunks, wedges or rings, depending on the end use.
|Photo: Nimi Sunilkumar|
Bilimbi is highly perishable, lasting only four to five days at room temperature. Transferring to the refrigerator only extends its shelf life for another few days. In cool storage, keep the fruits between 5 and 10C. Bilimbis cannot be frozen whole, as they’re susceptible to chilling injuries. To enjoy bilimbis year-round, simply juice the fruit and freeze into ice cubes.
Handle bilimbis carefully to prevent bruising their delicate skin. When placing in storage, line a shallow container with a paper towel, and do not stack fruits in more than two layers.
Bilimbi Recipe Ideas and Uses
--Many locals enjoy eating bilimbi with a pinch of salt
--With heaps of sugar and some mint, bilimbis make a fine drink akin to lemonade
--Use bilimbi juice a substitute for vinegar in salad dressings and curries
--As Indians do for similarly unpalatable and otherwise useless fruits, make bilimbis into chutneys, preserves and curries. When heated, bilimbi flesh may become yellowish-pink.
--Use bilimbis as a souring agent for soups and stews. If a curry is too sweet, the fruit’s sour notes will counterbalance it.
--Locals make bilimbi candy and syrup by soaking the fruit in mineral lime overnight, and then boiling in sugar several times over two or three days.
--Use bilimbi as a tomato or tamarind substitute in stews and curries.
--Others create a preserve-based bilimbi dip, made by fermenting bilimbis in vinegar and sugar for five days.
--Make pickled bilimbi by salting cut pieces of the fruit for two to six hours. In a separate pan, sauté garlic, ginger, fenugreek and chili in oil until aromatic. Add mustard seed and fenugreek, and reduce the heat when the seeds pop. Mix the salted bilimbi pieces with the seasoned oil, and transfer the concoction to a jar. Place in the refrigerator and consume within 5 days.
--Some regions cook bilimbi with coconut milk and chili for a savory curry. The fruit pairs well with lemongrass, as its lemony flavor matches bilimbi’s sharpness.
--Make bilimbi toffee by pressure cooking whole fruits, and then extracting the pulp with a sieve. Blend the pulp into a shallow saucepan. On low heat, add sugar, citric acid and glucose. Once the mix has thickened, add fine cashew nut powder and vegetable oil. Set the mix aside to cool. Roll into balls and leave to set on a piece of wax parchment.
Fruits: Starfruit, amla, star gooseberry, cucumber, bell pepper, java apple, malay apple, calamondin, sour orange, lemon, lime, kiwi, ambarella, lychee, passion fruit, soursop, sweet lime, pomelo, garcinia cambogia, bell pepper, cashew apple, strawberry
Herbs, spices, and oil: Chili oil, coconut oil, gingelly oil, vinegar, lemon juice, lime juice, ascorbic acid, salt, garam masala, asafetida, green chili, turmeric, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, coconut milk, coconut oil, sugar, cashew
--Like the starfruit, bilimbi’s oxalic acid is a natural blade cleaner and household cleaner. The fruit’s juice also works wonders on clothes stains.
Bilimbi is technically a berry, as is durian.