A curious crop
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
When TV "Top Chef" winner Ilan Hall made a dessert of tropical fruits with a Surinam cherry sorbet for the show's Season 2 January finale, he started something.
Within days, The New York Times had run a story on the fruit, which Hall had found at a Big Island farmers' market. And the questions were popping up on blogs: What IS a Surinam cherry? And where can you get them?
Answers: It's Eugenia uniflora L., a bush native to Surinam and Brazil, which bears bright red or black sour berries shaped like pumpkins. And you can't get them right now — they're out of season until April; the cherries fruit in spring and fall. Even when they are in season, Surinam cherries are rarely commercially available here except occasionally at farmers' markets; most folks just pick 'em from neighborhood bushes.
For University of Hawai'i researcher John Griffis and Big Island agriculture advocate Ken Love, however, the Surinam cherry took off a long time ago.
Both are enthusiastic about the commercial potential of this puckery, bright-colored fruit, although in Hawai'i it's perhaps best known as a missile used in after-school cherry fights. Ask any local kid: The ripe fruit make a most satisfying splat and a wicked stain sure to get your opponent in trouble.
"It's attractive, it's a really pretty color. It's a little bit unusual," said Griffis, a foliage, nursery and floral crops specialist in UH's Department of Tropical Plants and Soil Sciences in the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. Surinam cherry is not prone to many pests and rather easy to grow. Another plus: Brazilian research has shown that Surinam cherry is a promising source of antioxidants.
Griffis first came across Surinam cherries in his former home in Florida, where the shrub is widely used as a boundary hedge. There, as here, some people did make Surinam cherry jelly, jam, syrup or juice, but mostly, the fruit went to waste. There, Griffis experimented with a black-fruited variety, which contains less of the chemical that creates the resinous flavor some people find off-putting, and is considerably sweeter than the red variety. When he moved to Hawai'i, he brought his interest in the fruit.
Now, by means of a Hawaii Tropical Specialty Fruits Research and Development grant, Griffis has planted two test patches of 150 or so each of Zill Dark variety plants — one here and one in Kona. He hopes to help Island farmers better their Surinam cherry cultivation techniques and even to develop a method to encourage year-round fruiting.
AN ACQUIRED TASTE?
This isn't the first such attempt. Surinam cherry was among a dozen plants included in the just-completed Twelve Trees Project, funded by a Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant, on the Big Island. The two-pronged project worked to develop and report on cultivation techniques, then worked with chefs and culinary students to develop uses for fruit that grow well here but aren't widely cultivated.
With Surinam cherries, the chefs made sweet glazes, used the juice as a basis for curries, and even made cherry juice ice cubes to float in a punch bowl of Kona Rangpur limeade, another of the Twelve Trees fruits. The chefs especially appreciated the complex flavor that lends itself to both sweet and savory uses, Love said.
"Granted, for many people, Surinam cherry is an acquired taste, but people who love it really love it," Love said by phone from his Captain Cook farm. "Jelly-makers are seeking after it in quantities; I have people calling me and wanting 1,000 pounds, 3,000 pounds and I'm having a hard time getting 50 pounds for Merriman's. The farmers have always had it, it's been around, but now they're beginning to realize the value of it."
But as for all the fruit in the Twelve Trees Project, it will take time, money and commitment to cultivate the steady supply that chefs and food producers demand.
And when the fruit does make it to the market, it might not be called Surinam cherry.
Since few know where Surinam is, and it isn't technically a cherry, Griffis thinks a name change is in order. In Brazil, where it's widely used to make juices, ice cream, liqueurs and sweets, Surinam cherry is known as pitanga, and Griffis thinks perhaps that name will be a better choice under which to market it.
He's even got a catchy-sounding motto — "tangy pitanga."
Reach Wanda A. Adams at email@example.com.