Byline: By Alison Handley
"WHAT on earth's that?" It was umpteenth time I'd been asked the same question in just a few minutes.
But Birmingham shopper Sonia Hunter (pictured) was braver than most.
"I've never seen one of those before," she admitted, picking up the bright pink fruit with its characteristic curly 'scales' and giving it a sniff. "But I'd certainly like to try it. I think I'll have one."
Soon, the little fruit with the big personality was nestling inside Sonia's shopping basket alongside more standard supermarket fare.
For Sonia (pictured), a district nurse who lives in Erdington, the snap purchase of a Vietnamese dragon fruit was nothing unusual.
"I love trying new things," explains the mum-of-one, who describes her husband and grown up son as "sadly, stick in the muds" when it comes to unfamiliar tastes.
"I'm always game for trying new fruit, especially if it's something that can be eaten with the minimum of fuss. I spend a lot of time in the car with my job and I like things that are easy to eat.
"I love lychees, especially fresh ones, and I'm a big fan of sharonfruit and pomegranate and fresh mango. I have tried papaya but I wasn't very keen on that. Physalis peruviana - or cape gooseberries - are my favourites at the moment. I've usually got some of those in the car and they're really tangy and refreshing.
"I do buy 'normal' fruit, like apples and oranges and bananas, but I'll walk past the more exotic varieties and think 'I wonder what that taste's like?' and I can't resisting it a go." Sonia is typical of a new breed of shopper eager to break with tradition and try something new, according to experts.
Independent retail analysts TNS say the UK exotic produce market is now worth pounds 395 million at year and is growing rapidly at a rate of 33.6 per cent annually.
Supermarket giant Tesco is so keen to respond to demand and cash in on its customers' open mindedness, it has recently doubled its range of world produce to more than 50 items.
Rob Talbot, produce manager at Tesco's Edgbaston store on Ladywood Middleway, says: "When I first started working in produce 20 odd years ago, there was a very limited range of exotic fruit and vegetables available, such as sweet potatoes, butternut squash and kiwi fruit.
"These days shoppers are becoming a lot more open-minded and we're introducing new things all the time.
"The lemon melon is the latest - it's grown in Spain and looks like a honeydew melon but tastes like a lemon."
Jonathan Corbett, exotic and ethnic produce buyer for Tesco, says: "Until a few years ago we stocked just a handful of the more popular exotic vegetables and these were sold in areas where there were large ethnic communities. But now, multiculturalism has crossed over to our mainstream business and we are finding that shoppers are becoming increasingly adventurous.
"The exotic fruit and vegetable market has become one of the fastest growing areas of the food retail business and these days our staff are as likely to be asked for a kilo of plantains as sprouts or broccoli."
Jonathan says the influence of popular TV chefs and the increasing number of people taking long haul holidays have both helped to fuel the demand for exotic fruit and veg.
He even admits to having 'spotted' produce on his own private travels and brought things back for potential sale back home.
He says: "The palate is definitely changing in this country and a lot of people are becoming a lot more experimental with what they eat both at home and in restaurants.
"People are travelling worldwide and are trying things abroad which they then want to eat in their own homes.
"I have been known to bring the odd thing back in my suitcase because I think it's something that's worth us looking into."
Jonathan admits that many of the items he casts his eye over never actually make it onto the supermarket shelves.
"Probably only about 15 per cent of what we look at goes all the way," he says.
"A lot of things may not be commercially grown or they simply wouldn't make the grade in store.
"Everything we do has to conform to certain regulations and our farmers and growers have to be willing to work to very high standards.
"There are still a couple of things we'd like to sell, like yams and cassava, but although we know the demand is there, we haven't yet been able to find the right sources."
Perhaps surprisingly, there have even been occasions when items have been sourced far closer to home than you might expect.
Jonathan says: "If someone is growing something in the UK then we will use that source if at all possible. For example, we use British chillis grown in Bedfordshire whenever we can.
"If we can't do that, then we try to limit what we are doing in terms of air freight and reduce the carbon footprint. If we can put it on a boat or a lorry, we will."
DO YOU KNOW YOUR DUDHI FROM YOUR MOOLI OR YOUR LYCHEES FROM YOUR PAPAYA?
OKRA - Jordan. A versatile salad ingredient when eaten raw or cook and add to curry.
KARELA - India. This strongly flavoured plant, known as the bitter melon, can be peeled, chopped and added to curries.
DUDHI - India. Great for stir-fries, added to curry dishes or tossed in salads.
MOOLI - India. A crunchy white radish that can be used in salads, stir-fried or added to soups.
ROCKET CHILLI - India. Green version of the red 'bird's eye' chilli pepper. Very hot!
SHARONFRUIT - South Africa. A sweet fruit that can be eaten whole like an apple or used in savoury salads.
DRAGON FRUIT - Vietnam. A refreshing and sweetly flavoured cactus fruit.
LYCHEES - Israel. Eat on their own or as part of a tropical salad or compliment to oriental food.
FIG - Israel. An ideal companion to cheese and cured meats.
PAPAYA - Brazil. Eat like a melon with a squeeze of lime or ground ginger or use in tropical salads
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