Let me tell you something. You don't know anything about fruit. Fruit in Cebu is wildly different from northern hemisphere fruit. There's stuff here you can't even begin to imagine. Moreover, you'll freak when you hear how Cebuanos eat their fruit - but more about that later.
A good place to buy fruit is the tourist-oriented fruit stands. There are two; one on Fuente, near Chong Hua hospital, and one in Banilad, near the Gaisano Country Mall. Large tour buses regularly pull up at these stands, blocking traffic while disgorging hordes of tourists. But the same fruit are often sold at the markets for much more reasonable prices. The nice thing about the stands is that they are always open; if you arrive late at night, just wake up the vendor. Note that, even at these fruit stalls, all northern hemisphere fruit - apples, pears, cantaloupes, grapes - are imported from China or Australia. The exception is strawberries, which are flown in from the mountain city of Baguio, north of Manila.
Let's start with the king of all fruits. You've probably heard of the durian; some people live for the rich pungent smell and creamy taste; others detest it. Several varieties of durian grow in the Visayas. Due to the cooler climate, only one variety of smaller durians grows in Cebu, in Asturias, not far from Toledo City. But plenty are imported from the durian growing regions in the south of country. Durians are seasonal, being only available for the first half of the year, but some entrepreneurs freeze them and sell you the frozen flesh of the fruit throughout the year. Durians are considered an expensive fruit, weighing in at PhP 150-200 pesos per fruit - equivalent to a day's pay for the average worker. Opening a durian is not easy. The skin - or should I say armor - is prickly and tough to tear off. You'd need a knife, and leather gloves would be helpful. The vendor a the fruit stand may offer to open it for you.
Durians are somewhat like watermelons; it's difficult to tell if you have a good fruit in your hands or not. I'd guess that, if you buy ten durians, as many as half will be lousy. But the good ones will take you to a new heaven and you may well end up joining the ranks of the addicted. Here's a tip from me: Don't go for the green fruit. Choose the ones with the browner skin. The uglier the armor, the tastier the inside. The flesh of a durian fruit is packed into small pockets within the fruit, which are somewhat reminiscent of a fetus. The flesh should be soft and squishy, a pure bright yellow, and consistent from one end to the next.
You might also have heard of mangosteens. These are not related to mangos. A mangosteen is a perfectly round, shiny ball, a deep purple in color. Mangosteens are slightly smaller than a baseball but just as hard. Apparently they grow on trees like apples, but they
are usually sold tied together in bunches, like grapes. The flesh is tiny in comparison to the fruit, a pure white and quite sour. The taste is incomparable and wonderful and utterly addictive. I've been known to binge on three kilos at a sitting. As with durians, telling a good mangosteen from a bad one is hard, but you don't have much choice since they are, of course, sold in bunches. If don't have delicate fingernails, you can open a mangosteen with your bare hands, but be careful not to squash the fruit inside - it turns brown when damaged. You'll get the hang after a few bunches.
There is a fruit you may be indirectly familiar with that is sort of similar to a mangosteen, though, if anything, the taste is even more divine. The fruit is kakao; the seeds can be dried, ground, and used to make chocolate, but kakao is also a fruit. The seeds come enveloped in a thin, sticky layer of white flesh with a sweet and sour taste, and found within a thick, strong husk. Kakao are ready when bright yellow and the insides rattle when the fruit is shaken; the trees are common throughout Cebu island.
Mangos, of course, are the Philippines' most famous export. We eat them while they are green, crunchy and sour, with - believe it or not - a salty shrimp paste known as bagoong, but also when they are nice and sweet. Since mangos are available the world over, you're probably familiar with the taste, but try the local ones, fresh from the trees. If not fully ripe, leave them lying around at room temperature for a day or two. I swear, they melt in your mouth. [For an article about mango production, click here.]
Less well known are rambutans. These are small fiery balls, a bright purple in color. The flesh of a rambutan is soft and incredibly sweet, similar in consistency to that of lychees, and they're easy to open.
Another Cebu favorite is lanzones. These are small balls, somewhat smaller than golf balls. They need to be peeled but the skin is soft. The problem with lanzones is that the seed is bitter and spitting it out gets tiring after a while. I suppose you could consider lanzones to be the Visayan equivalent of grapes.
Jack fruit, called nangka in Cebu, are mammoth fruit - the largest fruit in the world, if I'm not mistaken which are used for cooking when unripe. When ripe they are beautifully yellow, chewy but slightly crunchy, and with a sweet, incomparable taste. Nangka can be bought by the kilo at the fruit stand, but I recommend getting it from a nangka vendor, who sell nothing but jack fruit in small packs worth between 30 and 50 pesos. Their fruit is usually fresh.
The marang is a relative of the nangka. It's smaller, rounder, and browner, but the construction is similar: a scaly, tough shell on the outside protects the sweet and juicy flesh in the inside. The flesh of the marang is white or off-white, softer than that of the nangka, and extremely sweet in taste, rather like honey.
Now, I'm sure you have saging, or bananas in your local grocery store, but they're probably the ubiquitous cavendish variety, known as bangan here. These are patently inferior but for some reason more expensive than the more common varieties. About a dozen kinds of banana grow in Cebu, and banana stalls usually sell at least three. The thick, squat kind are called kardaba and are a bit mushy, with little bitterness; for some reason this variety is usually cooked or served on a cue, fried. Then there is a smallish variety called lakatan, probably the best kind of bananas in the world. The peel is paper thin, but blemishes on the skin are not found on the flesh. The taste of the lakatan is sour-sweet and the texture is dense and juicy. A similar kind is the tundan, supposedly the only kind you can feed to an infant. Another good variety is mundo. Lady fingers, the tiny sweet variety of banana, are known as seorita here. Lastly, if you want real bananas, check out the variety known as tinduk.
You may have come across guava, perhaps in a tropical drink. Here guava, like a lot of fruit, are eaten will unripe, with salt. Another example is the balimbing, called star fruit in English, due to the beautiful shape of the cross-section. Balimbing is also the term applied to politicians who change affiliation according to whoever is predominent, since a balimbing points in numerous directions at once.
Guyabano is, for some inexplicable reason, also known as siko carabao, which means water buffalo's elbow. The white flesh is sweet and the seeds are like small black stones. Atis are similar, but smaller and less sour when ripe. Yet another fruit with small black stones as seeds is the sambag or tamarind, which is used to flavor sinigang, a kind of soup. The sour pulp of the fruit is also mixed with sugar, shaped into sticks, wrapped in bright orange celophane, and sold as snacks by the roadside. In this form it is known by as tamarindo.
Incidentally, there are two barangays - the smallest municipal political jurisdictions - named after the tamarind, Sambag I and Sambag II. Another fruit that has a place named after it in Cebu is the tisa, yellow-orange, slightly smaller than an apple, but pointy. Some people shy away from the orange flesh which resembles that of the avocado in terms of consistency and has a rather strong smell.
That will probably remind you of the kapayas aka papaya, which grows absolutely everywhere in Cebu. The uses Cebuanos have found for this fruit may surprise you. When still very unripe, papaya flesh is cut into cubes and used in dishes such as tinolang manok, or chicken soup. When half-ripe, the flesh is pickled and shredded, and served as atsara, a small side salad or garnish served alongside barbecue dishes, like chutney. When ripe, limonsito juice is added to the fresh fruit to obscure the somewhat pungent odor. Limonsitos, also known as calamansi or the Philippine lemon, are perfectly spherical native lemons, tiny and full of seeds, which are used in numerous dishes. Often, the limonsito will be plunked into a sauce whole, peel and all.
There's a berry you may come across, called lomboy. These look like dark elongated cherries but taste like poison pills - rather like unripe bananas, only far worse. Apparently they are quite tasty if taken with salt, but I suspect you need to have Visayan blood to enjoy these.
Far more pleasant are the manzanitas, which look exactly like cherries (as depicted at right), and have a mellow, buttery
rather than a sour taste. Manzanita are best before they become bright red, when their skin is a bronzen hue. You can recognize a manzanita tree by its sticky leaves. Sadly, the manzanita does not seem to be a commercial fruit, and we've never come across it for sale anywhere in Cebu.
Bo-ongon, meanwhile, are large citrus fruit that look like deformed cantaloups. Thick foamy shells which protect the pinkish flesh inside. Dalandan are also citrus fruits, but much smaller.
Santol are fruit with rich, sweet flesh, reminiscent of figs. Sinegwelas, which are in season during the Philippine summer (April - June), are the tiny Visayan equivalent of plums. They gradually turn from green to purple to bright red, and they are at their sweetest and tastiest when they are about to lose their purpleness, although we prefer to eat them when they are still a little crunchy, and the flesh is still yellow as opposed to deep orange.