Strange Fruits 

Tropical Oddities aren't just for fun anymore, but recruits in a war against various ailments.

It's the size and shape of a hand grenade, but sun-gold, with spikes. Sliced in half, it spurts a clear green ooze that smells, barely and fleetingly, like meat. Laid open, it presents a bright fibrous network of hollows awobble with nodules, glass-green, fingernail-size. In each nodule is suspended a seed. Sliding on spoons as if alive, it slurps like agar and tastes of cucumber, but faintly — like a whisper — sweet.

It's the kiwano — the "horned melon" or "jelly melon" to plebes. Berkeley Bowl sells it for $5.59 a pound, and that's a lot — because it comes from Africa and because the store sells very few. Because most shoppers have never heard of it.

Yet.

Kiwano is among the varieties now dubbed superfruits for their high nutrient and antioxidant content. Others include astringent royal-purple Brazilian açaí, flame-red and reticently sweet Chinese goji berries, creamy Maluku Islands mangosteen, and the familiar pomegranate, remarketed as an acidic red weapon against death.

New fruits do enter the American scene every few years. There was indeed a time before "banana" was a household word. But how do you market new fruit these days? Answer: By strapping it into combat gear, invoking cancer and heart disease and free radicals that rampage through us wreaking cell damage, and then telling us, hey, these strange fruits from far away contain antioxidants, which are special molecules that vanquish the free radicals. "Cancer" and "fruit" sound awful in the same sentence, but that's the superfruit selling point. And it is selling. A lot. Nearly a thousand new superfruit-flavored product lines were launched last year — many, of course, did so right around here.

The simplest way to get the fruits is in grocery stores: Berkeley Bowl sells kiwano and pomegranate, and dried goji berries that resemble bland pink raisins. Because açaí are tiny and sweet — with a flavor poised between grape and boysenberry, only sharper — and notoriously difficult to transport, they nearly always turn up in frozen purée form. Jamba Juice's tagline for its new Açaí Super-Antioxidant Smoothie is "Fights Well with Others."

The chain also offers a sunny, sharp Pomegranate Paradise smoothie. Berkeley's new Brasil Cafe serves açaí-mango smoothies. It also serves a trendy Brazilian breakfast dish: bowls heaped with the frozen purée. Color is arguably açaí's best feature — a bottomless purple, more insistent than plum, you can almost hear it. Scattered on top, a welcome starchy foil to its astringency, are granola and sliced bananas.

Oakland-based Häagen-Dazs has introduced a light, lemony Brazilian Açaí Berry Sorbet. Downtown Berkeley's Gelateria Naia makes açaí sorbetto occasionally, although employees admit it's not very popular. Two blocks south, Gelato Milano spins a pomegranate sorbetto sometimes.

Concord's Caffe Classico Foods won a coveted SOFI award — Specialty Outstanding Food Innovation — for its Belizza Pomegranate-Açaí Sorbetto this summer. Seductively dark, dotted with infinitesimal pulp bits to remind you of the rainforest, it sings in the mouth: I am a new fruit flavor. Remember me. Cane sugar lends it an authenticity and intensity that Häagen-Dazs' milder, corn-syrup-infused version lacks. "We were the first to introduce an açaí sorbet, knowing that others would follow," beams Caffe Classico's owner, Tom Heffernan.

Heffernan was born in Brazil, where his American father was an engineer. He holds a Brazilian passport, and makes açaí-shopping trips every few months. He flies first to São Paulo, then another five hours to the Amazon estuary where thousands of tiny islets, most of them unmapped, bristle with açaí palms. Each is heavy with branch-clusters, or panicles, and each panicle holds some seven hundred berries. Until three years ago, 95 percent of all açaí consumed in the world were eaten by indigenous peoples in the fruit's native habitat, this remote watery region. Then it became trendy in urban Brazil. Now it's globalization's latest sweetheart.

"There isn't a problem with supply — yet," Heffernan says. Rather, processing is the problem. "Over 90 percent of the fruit is seed," he points out. "If you shipped them straight off the palm, you'd be shipping 90 percent waste." Thus processing plants are sprouting on the islets to pit, purée, and freeze the fruit.

The sooner the better, Heffernan says, because açaí doesn't exactly have a shelf-life. Once picked, it starts oxidizing immediately, losing up to half of its antioxidant value within a day. "That defeats its whole purpose," he says. "Once you eat it, the fruit's supposed to take the oxidant hit instead of your body."

At Berkeley's Elephant Pharmacy, row upon row of pertly bottled superfruit drinks fill a refrigerated case. Bossa Nova's Açaí Juice with Agave is musky yet clean. Kombucha Botanica's Pomegranate Healthy Living Tonic has a fermented kick, like Russian kvass. Soy lecithin and blue agave make Sambazon's Original Blend Açaí Juice surprisingly smooth. Adina's slyly crisp Super-Antioxidant Pomegranate Mangosteen Pömagic is the best of the bunch. Gojilania Goji Juice sells for $7.99 a pop, so you can only hope it lives up to the company's rhetoric about "sacred" and "legendary" berries that have been "a secret of Chinese and Tibetan medicine for centuries."

Two blocks south, Cafe Gratitude sells powdered açaí and whole goji berries under its own label, plus goji-juice shots. Because all the items on the cafe's menu have names that force you to sound like a narcissist when ordering, the shots are called "I Am Sublime."

As for sitting down and eating antioxidants with a fork, Cafe Gratitude also serves "I Am Prosperous," a salad that nicely balances mango chunks, macadamias, mixed greens, and avocado with sweet-hot goji-chipotle dressing. Two blocks south, tiny but lovely Zatar Restaurant — with its mural evoking Bosnia-Herzegovina and its festoons of mini-lights shaped like bunches of grapes — does antioxidantism old-school with mohamara, a velvety-rich, brick-red spread crafted of puréed red pepper, walnuts, and pomegranate. Two more blocks north, Alborz Persian restaurant offers pomegranate juice and fesenjan, the traditional walnut-pomegranate-chicken stew.

Downtown Berkeley's most surprising superfruit entrées await at India Palace. On its menu, pomegranate is listed as an ingredient in several entrées — but don't expect seeds, rich ruby-redness, or even a suggestion of sweetness. The ingredient is anardana, a yellowish dried pomegranate-seed powder, typically used as an acidulant in curries. It's tart and sharp in the assertive lamb-cauliflower-tomato melange ghobi gosht, and lends an almost mustardy bite to the lightly cooked spinach and potatoes in ajwaini alu.

You can just feel those free radicals shouting Heeeelp meeeee!

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