A relative to other tropical fruits such as the lychee and longan, rambutans are the fruit of a tropical tree native to Southeast Asia. Like other fruits from this part of the world, rambutans can be grown in the far north regions of Australia, where they are growing in popularity. Dr Kerry Eupene, a dentist by day and one of the few rambutan growers in Australia in every spare hour, chats with Baking Business about the amazing qualities of this exotic-sounding fruit.
Tell us about your farm and how long you’ve been growing rambutans:
We’re about 30 km south of Darwin in a place called Bees Creek. We’ve been growing rambutans there on 10 hectares for probably 35 years. We continue to expand the orchard with different rambutans, but we’ve now basically settled on four or five of the best varieties for Australian conditions.
Have they increased in popularity since you first started?
Yes, there’s been a significant increase in popularity, so much so that we have trouble meeting demand. From here we send to all mainland capital cities, and we just can get rid of every piece of fruit that’s developed.
Basically, it’s an Asian fruit—the Asian people sought it out—but now it’s going through a transition phase going into the Caucasian households as more people get to know it. That explains the demand.
How much fruit do you produce each year?
There are only two growing centres; one in Darwin and the other is in the tropics of Queensland. The total amount of fruit produced has declined in recent years because of the major cyclones that hit Queensland—Harry and Yasi—they knocked out lots and lots of rambutan trees. But out of the Northern Territory, you’d probably get around 90 to 100 tonnes per year—about 12 tonnes from me.
Where does the produce go? Is it mostly domestic or international as well?
We used to ship to Japan, but the demand in Australia is so high that the rigours of international shipping protocols weren’t justified.
Most of it is sold in the retail specialty fruit shops, but some does go into the chain stores. The bulk would go to the specialty stores like Harris Farm Markets. In the suburbs like Cabramatta, Sydney, where a lot of Asian people live, they take the bulk of the supply from the Northern Territory.
What do they taste like?
They’re better than a lychee. You get more bang for your buck with a rambutan because they’re a bigger, juicier fruit. They’re easier to peel as well.
What are the challenges of growing them?
When you grow them in Australia, you’re right on the cusp of where they can actually grow the fruit because they’re a true tropical rainforest tree. They come originally from Malaysia so it’s that environment that suits them best. We can’t move them further south than here because of too much cold weather and a lack of humidity—that’s the biggest thing. Around the coastal areas is where they grow best.
They also require a lot of water; if you don’t water them regularly, you’ll lose the tree. And every bird and possum loves them, so they’re all fully netted with permanent bird netting structures to stop them being eaten. They’re the main limitations—there are a lot of infrastructural costs. You need good water supply and you need the right environment.
They are labour-intensive too, because when we pack a rambutan for interstate, it probably goes through three sets of hands with the picking, the sorting and the packing. And there’s no actual machine packing available at the moment.
When is the fruit harvested?
We start in late October/November and go through to February. Then Queensland comes in around February to March, so there’s a good continuity to supply available to Australian markets.
How is production looking this year?
It looks okay so far, so we’re hoping to get picking in October. But there’s a lot of vagaries in the production of horticultural products, so who knows?
How do you find time for the farm?
It’s difficult to do, and I do rely on other people. But I work just about all hours over the weekend to just do the administration and jobs around the farm—checking irrigation and fertilising them. The good thing is we can grow them without any chemical insecticides, so that’s a big plus for us here. It takes a bit of doing, but we can usually get by.
What’s the best way to use/eat them?
Fresh is the best way. People who know them well will just bite into the skin, pop out the flesh of the rambutan and eat it. They’re used a lot—one of the cocktail bars in Sydney last year was using them instead of strawberries in their champagne. They lend themselves to liqueur drinks, and are a dessert fruit—good with ice cream. I can assure you that once people have a taste of them, they just eat them.