Carambola is the pinup girl of tropical fruit, valued more for its comely shape (an unusual winged oval that yields starfish-like slices) and lovely skin (translucent and glossy, ripening to golden hues) than its substance.
Yet star fruit is more than a whimsical garnish for a cocktail. It can be a versatile cooking ingredient, and it is perfect for drying — an excellent option for home gardeners with a bumper crop.
I confess I had never been impressed with carambola’s flavor, finding the standard commercial variety, Arkin, blandly sweet. But then Mike Winterstein, a research technician at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s station at Chapman Field, gave me a taste of his favorite cultivar, the Fwang Tung.
I was blown away by its intense flavor, delicious sweet-tart balance and abundant juiciness. I could imagine adding slices of it to a shrimp dish flavored with vanilla and hot peppers or grilling it with fish or pork until just golden brown, basted with a bit of olive oil.
The Fwang Tung, a Thai native, is one of 22 cultivars at Chapman Field in Coral Gables. Its deep, unwieldy wings mean it probably will never have the commercial viability of the compact and packable Arkin, but the University of Florida’s Dr. Jonathan Crane foresees a boutique niche for such superlative fruits. Crane, a tropical fruit crop specialist, also sees a market for dehydrated carambola (see box on page 4E).
Another of the cultivars I tasted at Chapman Field was the tart Golden Star, the first important commercial variety in Florida before it was demoted by the sweeter Arkin. It is the favorite of Becky Campbell, whose late husband, Dr. Carl W. Campbell, was instrumental in its propagation. (Their son, Dr. Richard Campbell, is senior curator of tropical fruit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.)
Becky Campbell appreciates the Golden Star precisely for its sourness, finding that its tang is perfectly suited to desserts calling for brown sugar like her upside-down carambola cake (see recipe). Her advice to cooks is “not to overcook the fruit.”
“Some carambolas need some jazzing up, a bit of this or that to bring out their full flavor, but never smash the fruit too much; never overcook it,” she told me.
Like her, I prefer to cook the fruit as little as possible before using it in an upside-down cake or as a filling for a pie or sweet empanada or a topping for ice cream or cake. Ingredients such as cinnamon, star anise, ginger and aged rum enhance its fragrance, and flavorful Latin American brown loaf sugar brings out its honey notes.
Carambola is also terrific in savories. Sliced raw, it blends beautifully with cubed Florida avocado and peppery watercress in a salad dressed with a chile-spiked vinaigrette. A few cooked and chilled shrimp turn it into a light main course.
Grilling is another way of coaxing great flavor from carambola slices. Glaze the fruit with a bit of a spiced brown sugar or a tart hibiscus syrup and a little olive oil.
Braised with chicken or pork in a sultry fricassee, stir-fried with Asian ingredients, added to rice dishes or chopped into a spicy salsa in lieu of tomatoes (one of Mike Winterstein’s favorite uses), carambola adds an elusive flavor and distinctive texture.
Juicy varieties such as Arkin, Fwang Tung and Golden Star are also delicious in juices. At my kitchen market, Ultramarinos, I juice carambola with tart Granny Smith apples and a bit of ginger and add the mixture to freshly brewed oolong tea for a most refreshing iced tea.
Carambola is a bountiful tree that bears fruit in both winter and summer, giving much pleasure to anyone who cares to look beyond its glossy, shapely exterior.