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Sapodilla refers to the deliciously sweet tropical fruit with a caramel or cotton candy taste, and the tree that produces it. The tree may have originated in or near Mexico, and its scientific name is Manilkara zapota. There are many different names for the fruit, which is now grown not only in much of Mexico and islands like the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands, but also in India. In India the plant may be called the tree potato or buah chicku. The name chicle is common and varieties include chicoo and chicozapote. Other variant names are zapote, mispel, nispero, and neeseberry.
Tree potato perhaps best describes the look of sapodilla fruit. The outside skin, which is much harder than potato skin, has a tan or brown color. Shape varies, with oval and nearly round shapes the most common types. Length of each fruit also exhibits some range but is usually an average of two to four inches (5.08-10.16cm).
In tropical or near tropical climates, the tree fruits twice yearly. The sapodilla trees can grow exceptionally large, up to 100 feet (30.48 m) when fully mature. For those who would prefer a smaller tree, there are dwarf varieties, but these too may reach up to 26 feet (7.93 m) in height as they mature. The trees really do require tropical or near tropical temperatures, and in the US, the only place they tend to grow well is Florida.
Most sapodilla fruit contains seeds, and these should really be removed before consumption. The seeds have a small hook that can catch in the throat and cause choking. Commonly these seeds are large, noticeable and easy to remove when the fruit is cut in half.
Frequently, sapodilla is served by halving the fruit, and eating out the center with a spoon. The exterior of the fruit maintains a somewhat hard shell, which keeps structure nicely intact, perfect for scooping. It’s important to eat fruit that is fully ripe.
Unripe sapodilla contains tannins that can pucker the mouth. Most fruit is picked unripe, but does ripen off the tree, usually within a week. The fruit is ripe when it gives a little bit under pressure from the fingers, but you shouldn’t wait to serve it after it is ripe, because it can quickly become overripe and mushy. Generally a ripe fruit will keep for about a week without degrading, or you can extend keeping time by refrigerating it.
Some recipes make use of cooked sapodilla. Fruit pulp can be added to custard. In the Bahamas, crushed fruit is added to pancake batter for a sweet variation on an old favorite. The pulp could also be a great ingredient in smoothies, or made into dessert sauce. There even exists some recipes for sapodilla pie.
An important byproduct of M. zapota is chicle, a gummy resin that can be tapped from trees. This was often a primary choice for chewing gums, though it has been replaced to a certain extent by other materials. In the 1930s, sale of chicle was very high, and countries that grew large amount of these trees, especially Mexico, were exporting approximately 14 million pounds (about 6350 metric tons) of chicle on an annual basis.