March 18, 2009 — -- In the industry they're known as exotic or specialty produce, but consumers might think of these fruits and vegetables as unusual, uncommon or simply strange.
Although exotic fruits and vegetables still represent 1 percent of all produce sales, "some things once introduced as specialty items are now mainstream and not considered exotic anymore," said Karen Caplan, president of Freida's Specialty Produce in Los Alamitos, Calif.
She explained that chili peppers were once new to the average American consumer. But these days most everyone is familiar with these hot peppers and as further indication of their widespread popularity, salsa has eclipsed ketchup as the country's most popular condiment. Mangoes and kiwis were also once viewed as unconventional and are now commonplace in stores.
Caplan offered several explanations for the interest in exotic fruits and vegetables.
"The No. 1 promoter of new and unusual produce is The Food Network," she said.
Watching TV cooking shows helps introduce consumers to items they may have not been exposed to or known what to do with.
Traveling is yet another factor that influences the specialty produce market. Seeing the world introduces travelers to new tastes and foods. For example, people might visit Hawaii and have papaya there for the first time. And when they return, they want to get that fruit here, explained Caplan. Dining out and wanting to replicate a particular taste at home is a third reason why shoppers might gravitate toward less conventional forms of produce.
What follows are descriptions of 13 exotic fruits and vegetables that may have never made it into your shopping cart -- let alone your mouth. The next time you're in the supermarket, perhaps you'll give them a closer look.