Not a very long time ago in a grocery store not so far away…
Spiny, bright orange fruits—large enough to fit one in a hand—appeared in small baskets on the exotic and specialty fruit shelves. $7 each—really!?
A sucker for new culinary experiences, I gave one a try.
The fruit goes by several names including African horn melon or jelly melon. A couple of New Zealanders trademarked it as the “kiwano” in the mid-1980’s, presumably hoping that one day kiwano would become the household name for a common fruit, much as another New Zealand marketing success story of the time turned the fuzzy Chinese gooseberry into the kiwifruit. Perhaps for several reasons, however, “kiwano” was not to be the next kiwi.
The jelly melon, known to science as the fruit of Cucumis metuliferus, is related to cucumbers and can be found growing in semi-arid areas of Africa, especially along rivers. The thick, spine-studded skin seems intent on hurting the handler; comparisons to a Medieval weapon are apt. Likewise, the herbaceous vine that produces the fruit is covered in stiff hairs that break off and penetrate and irritate the skin, making fruit harvest a daunting task best done wearing gloves.
I know this because I grow them. That one-time purchase of a jelly melon yielded the ancestor seeds for perhaps 175 fruits so far, harvested over the past two growing seasons, the sprawling trellised plants enjoying the suitably African climate of my hoop house.
Despite its difficulties, the jelly melon has some attributes that made it worthy of garden space. Cutting open the ripe fruit yields a vibrant green interior, made electric in contrast to the bright orange skin. The pulp consists of thin seeds, each embedded in a green jelly envelop, all of which is slurped down together. I realize the “mouthfeel” isn’t for everyone but the refreshing slightly tart cucumbery-citrus flavor is unique. With a little sprinkle of sugar my kids love it, and any food of botanical origin that those two eat is worth growing.
If not for its culinary contributions, jelly melon appeal lies in its other-worldliness. More than one customer of my farmer’s market stand bought them (for far less than $7) because “they look so cool” and intended to give them as novelty gifts, especially for children.
Which is why, I imagine, it was decided to use jelly melons as an alien food prop in the latest Star Wars. Look for them served alongside Romanesco broccoli and some other strange-yet-Earthbound plants that many in the audience probably won’t recognize. We earthlings have cobbled together a food system that relies on about 20 plants to feed ourselves. And yet, with some 20,000 edible plants known to botanists, the plant kingdom is a universe of neglected food. The dark side of market forces dictates that only those plants amenable to high production industrial farming, epic transport distances, and lengthy shelf lives makes inclusion into our kitchens difficult for newcomers. But a vast opportunity for culinary exploration awaits those adventurers that have awaken to the possibilities.
By Steve Corso
Want to grab a jelly melon of your own this season? Steve has a few left so catch him at the Geauga Winter Farmers Market or stop by his farm, Bat Barn Farm & Foraging at 11863 Taylor Wells Rd in Chardon, but be sure to call ahead, 440.635.0137.