Friday, December 16, 2011


High summer in northeastern Brazil (right about now) brings along a cornucopia of seasonal fruits when it arrives. There are standard commercial fruits that are available all-year-round in Brazil - things like mangoes, papayas, bananas, oranges, etc. - and there are fruits that are only available locally and seasonally. These have more limited commercial potential obviously, and are sometimes only sold by street-side vendors and guys who stand in the median at red lights, but they're often interesting and usually delicious. And summer brings the majority of them with it.

Yesterday, while we were in our car waiting for the light to change, a vendor offered us a small bundle of a fruit called pitomba for which he wanted R$2,00 (about a dollar). We bought a bunch, took it home and stuck it in the fridge to cool, then ate the pitombas for dessert last night. They were marvelous, and absolutely refreshing. And they brought back memories of Canada and Asia (you'll soon see why).

When researching the pitomba on various botanical sites on the internet this morning we found lots of information about the fruit. That it's native to the Amazon Basin, for example, and that it's cultivated in Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela. That its name, whether you're speaking English, Spanish or Portuguese, is pitomba. But nothing about what to us is the most obvious and interesting thing about pitomba - its relationship to a family of Asian fruits.

Take a look at this photo of a vendor in Fortaleza with a bundle of pitombas. Does the fruit remind you of any fruit that you know? One that you might seen and eaten in Asia, or found in places in North America where there is a significant Asian population? Certainly, having lived for many years in Vancouver, with its various Asian communities, we found the resemblance startling.

To us, pitomba looks like a twin of the fruit we know from Canada as longan. And like a cousin, only slightly less closely related, of the lychee. And when we checked out the taxonomy of the pitomba, the longan and the lychee, all three belong to the same kingdom, division, class, order and family. It's only when you get to the genus and species that they diverge. They're obviously "family."

It seems strange that none of the sources that we checked out, including scientific botanical sites and more popular sites like Wikipedia, mention this relationship. Whether you know their scientific names or not, all you have to do is eat a longan, a lychee and a pitomba and you'll know they're very closely related - in appearance, in size, in color and texture and in flavor. So why doesn't anyone mention this? There must be an interesting evolutionary reason why trees native to East Asia (longan and lychee) and to the jungles of the Amazon (pitomba) are so closely related. We'd be interested to hear the tale. And if no one knows why, it sounds like a perfect botanical puzzle to figure out. Maybe the pitomba is the proof that those who claim that South America was populated directly from Asia by seafaring peoples need to make their case. Who knows?

What we do know, however, is that we love pitombas, and are most happy to see them for sale again, even if it's only for a short time.


  1. last year in Chennai (south of india), i happened to visit a fruit shop where it was being sold by name Australian Lychee. Now iam surprised that it is native to amazon basin.

  2. In Chennai, it might have been longans that was labelled Australian Lychee - but I'm no expert. Can you find pitombas in Rio? I'd love to know if they're only available here in the Northeast.

  3. Looks (and apparently tastes) very similar to a fruit we have here in Mexico that's called Guaya (Melicoccus bijugatus).

  4. They look really interesting. Is there a red stone like in the lychee?

  5. Thanks for the info! I too was struck by the resemblance to longans - and I too struck out when I sought clarification from wikipedia. I've cited this article in my own blog entry about the fruits of the Northeast.

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