Around the world, eating green, unripe fruit is part of the cuisine culture. Thailand’s renowned Papaya Salad – Som Tam- relies entirely on eating a plateful of unripened papaya (paw paw), a concept totally foreign to the western palate and yet embraced by all who love the stuff, east and west alike.
Why is it that certain cultures regularly consume the sour or fibrous version of fruit, while others are repulsed by it, and what is the difference between eating fruit when it is ripe and juicy and eating it when it hasn’t hit it’s peak?
Unripe green mangos, for example, can be found all over Asia, peeled and cut into strips and munched on like a bag of chips. In India, they are sold with salt and honey as a dipping condiment. In Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand, they are sold with a very unexpected mixture of chili flakes and sugar, also to be used as a kind of dipping seasoning.
Unless you have tasted the combination of fibrous, crunchy, sour mango with salt or chili, and something sweet- like sugar or honey, it is hard to imagine, but, like many things that seem outrageous when first suggested, the blended flavours marry perfectly.
There is a reason this popular street-food snack is widely available. It tastes incredible and offers a very satisfying crunchy mouth feel, as well as taste. Ripened mango is sweet and drippy, with a fragrance that shouts sunshine and tropical breezes. There is no question of its place in our hearts.
The unripe version gives only a hint of summer, but contains a large amount of vitamin C – as much as 3 oranges worth per 100 grams-and a fairly decent levels of potassium. They are also very low calorie. Interestingly, in the case of mangoes, unripe they contain more Vitamin C than when ripe. This is because the natural sugar conversion of the ripening process affects the chemical make-up of the fruit itself. They also increase bile output in the liver, which aids digestion.
Unripe bananas are also a surprise when it comes to nutrition and versatility. When green, bananas are almost 80% resistant starch. They also contain pectin. Resistant starch is super important for anyone worried about their gut biome health and cholesterol levels. The good bacteria in our gut LOOOOVES resistance starch, and pectin. They gobble it up and thrive, meaning that anything else we eat will be digested properly when the time comes, and anything not so good for us can be dealt with. When bananas are ripe, the starch is converted into sugar. A fully ripe banana contains only 1% starch. Now, sitting down and eating green bananas ‘as is’ is not going to give anyone joy, but fear not, recipes from the Caribbean and all over Asia use green bananas in the same way one would use a potato. They can be boiled, fried or steamed and added to curries and salads, and as a starchy element of minced meat dishes- like burger patties and kebabs or as a dessert by simmering them in coconut milk until softened.
In Northern India, samosas are stuffed with spiced and mashed green bananas and then deep fried as a fabulous snack.
Green plums, while not good for chomping on by themselves, make an amazing snack when pickled, just like olives, and are extremely popular in the country of Georgia, where they are made intoTkemali, a herby sauce that can be used directly on meat or vegetables, or used as a marinade. The green plums are cooked down with coriander, lemon, cumin, dill and black pepper. Georgians also have been known to make a fierce local liquor out of green plums, but to be fair, Georgians have been known to make a fierce liquor out of anything that stands still long enough. Unripe plums have a decent amount of vitamin C, although this will be reduced through the cooking and pickling process.
Like a lot of things, our willingness to embrace new ideas often relies on exposure and experience, and eating fruit when it is ‘not ready’ fits into that category as well. While some fruit may be truly inedible when unripe- and some may even be dangerous- a quick check of the eating habits of other countries shows us that food we may dismiss as ‘not fit for purpose’ is simply misunderstood. If you find yourself with an overabundance of fruit that you think you can’t use, do a quick online search before you toss it in the bin. As well as getting to try something new, you may even discover something unexpectedly delicious and healthy inside a green skin.