As a fruit obsessed person, some of my favorite food memories are from visiting the fruit markets of cities like Sarawak, Bogota and Mexico City.
Five years ago I toured the popular Paloquemao Fruit Market in Bogota. Before the sun was up, I stuffed my face with ripe guanabana (soursop) and sucked the inside bags of maracuya (passion fruit), as the pulpy juices dripped down my hands.
I remember one of the vendors handing me a small, oval-shaped fruit, patterned in yellow and red, smaller than the size of my palm.
“Mango de azucar,” she exclaimed repeatedly.
She instructed me to turn the sugar mango upside down, puncture it with my thumbnail and peel it like a banana. There was a strong perfume, with hints of caramel. When I plopped the mango in my mouth, it gushed with ripe, sweet juice.
I remember thinking, while we have plenty of imported fruits in Toronto, we never see this stuff.
How things have changed. In the past five years, we have seen an explosion of hard-to-find imported fruits across the Greater Toronto Area.
“Seasonality and the demand is why we see so much fruit during spring to early summer,” said Rizmy Razik, produce buyer at Iqbal Halal Foods.
The Thorncliffe grocer is a cornerstone in the community, known for its wide array of Middle Eastern and South Asian foodstuffs. During recent years it has also started importing fruits from Central and South American countries.
At Iqbal, over the past few years, regulars have requested specific varieties of fruits to be shipped to the store.
Mangos are a particularly hot item at Iqbal. Razik noted that during the weekends the store will sell a palate of fruit (160 cases of mangos).
“The sugar mangos from Colombia are very popular because of their sweetness,” said Razik.
Also popular at the market are guavas, which due to customer demand, Razik needs to keep regularly stocked.
“In the spring months you will see a mountain of guavas from Egypt. After that season is over we bring guavas in from Mexico, then Pakistan.”
As a produce buyer, Razik’s weekly routine is to tour the food terminal and his supplier’s shops to see what seasonal fruit he can get his hands on. Whether it’s kinnow tangerines from Pakistan, or java plums (jamun) from parts of India.
The produce section at Iqbal morphs weekly as Razik and his team rearranges sections with crates of fruit.
“This year it feels like even the larger grocery stores are realizing that there is an appetite for these unique fruits,” Razik said.
Another gold mine for fruit in the spring is Sunny Mart in North York. The produce section often balloons with citrus varieties regularly flown in from Taiwan that sometimes spill over the entrance and into the hallway of the plaza.
You’ll find crates of fresh mangosteen from Vietnam, at least a half dozen versions of guavas from the Middle East and Southeast Asia. There are, of course, entire sections for mangos, and even some highly praised apples from Japan, each carefully wrapped in colorful tissue paper.
“It is partially to market the fruit as something elegant, but it’s also to prevent the skin from being bruised,” said Simon Chen, manager of Hot Spicy Spicy, a restaurant situated in the same plaza as Sunny Mart.
Beyond city borders, in Markham, there are more opportunities to experience the bounty of seasonal fruit.
First, Freshway Supermarket. The sprawling Markham supermarket is a hot spot for its sheer selection of fruits from various parts of Asia. There were no less than six varieties of melons from Korea, Japan and Taiwan on a recent visit.
Particularly popular is the Korean curly melon — an oblong shaped, bright yellow fruit with flesh that tastes like a symphony of pear and cantaloupe with recurring banana and cucumber notes.
There is also First Choice Supermarket. Recently, I spotted an entire section there dedicated to Aksu Fiji apples, a variant of Fiji apples that is grown in Aksu, Xinjiang. They are prized for their smooth fleshy center and a sweet, almost saccharine flavour.
Next to the apples were boxes of individually packaged musk melons. The melons were not visible, carefully protected to prevent curious fingers from bruising the exterior. These melons are usually rare, but I’ve seen them at a few places this year.
A few years ago they were only available at some of the city’s top Japanese omakase spots, which serve a thick slice for dessert. When you scoop into one, it feels like you’re spooning sorbet, with an intense flavor of melon that lingers for several moments.
What’s next for imported fruit in the GTA?
As the season continues and temperatures change, Razik said he will start to bring in specialty fruits from northern Mexico. “My job is not just to fill the shelves, but to have something new and interesting every week.”
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