Mercado São Sebastião, we spot someone selling a fruit that we've never seen before. And being in the business of blogging Brazilian food, we are forced, naturally, to ask the vendor what's in his display case, or what's in her cardboard box on the floor.
This week, we came across one of the regular vendors (those who have a designated stand and who are there year-round) selling a small roundish yellow fruit that looked like-an-apricot-but-not-an-apricot. It was about the same size and color, but the skin was a bit glossier and the shape wasn't identical. It didn't have the line which splits an apricot into two natural halves. It looked familiar, but we couldn't identify it. We were sure we'd seen it somewhere before but weren't able to recall when or where.
The vendor was happy to tell us that he was selling a fruit called nêspera, but the name meant nothing and wasn't much of a clue. He kindly cut one open which settled once and for all that this wasn't some variety of apricot. Instead of a single stone, there was a cluster of glossy brown seed in the middle of the fruit. We bought some and headed home for a tasting and to find out what we had bought.
Nêspera, according the the dictionary is also known in Brazil as ameixa-amarela, which means yellow plum. However, the fruit is no more related to the plum than it is to the apricot. Finding the scientific name, Eriobotrya japonica, gave us a clue as to the geographical origins of the plant and a key to finding the English name. We know it as loquat (if we know it at all).
Discovering the English name, we remembered where we'd seen it. In Asian markets, in Vancouver. We'd seen it in fruit and vegetable stores in Chinatown and Japantown, and it seemed to be quite popular with members of Vancouver's various Asian communities.
Loquats came to Brazil along with the thousands of Japanese immigrants who arrived in the early 20th century. (The persimmon arrived in the same manner). The first loquat plantations were in Brazil's southeast, where Japanese settlers worked on coffee plantations, but now loquats are grown in many regions of Brazil.
Today Brazil is the world's third largest producer of this fruit, trailing only Japan and Israel. As in Asia, most of the annual nêspera crop is eaten fresh, though we understand that some jellies and jams are commercially produced.