Sapodilla, also known as naseberry, is both a tropical tree and the edible fruit that it produces. Botanists have classified sapodilla as Manilkara zapota, a member of the Sapotaceae family. It is related to sapote, another tropical fruit. Sapodilla trees are thought to be native to certain regions in Mexico and South America. They spread by cultivation and trading throughout Central and South America and later to the Bahamas, West Indies, Florida, and India. Today the latter country is the largest producer of sapodilla trees and fruit in the world.
The sapodilla tree grows mainly in tropical regions that have plenty of rain and warmth. It is slightly more tolerant to cold than other tropical plants, but cannot withstand frost. The trees can grow up to 100 feet tall and have evergreen glossy-green pointed leaves about the length of a finger. Small cream-colored flowers develop on small stalks several times throughout the year. After pollination these flowers turn into fruit that are about the size and shape of chicken eggs. The fruit is surrounded by a thin brown skin with a scruffy coating similar to the skin on a kiwifruit. Inside the skin is an edible flesh that can be yellow, brown, or a rust color. The flesh can be smooth or grainy with a sweet flavor similar to a pear. Some varieties of sapodilla fruit are seedless, but most have a handful of flat, hard, black seeds with a tiny hook on one end. Mature sapodilla trees can produce two to three thousand fruits a year. Farmers in India have developed numerous different varieties of sapodilla through genetic breeding. The most common varieties include Brown Sugar, Prolific, Russel, and Tikal.
Sapodilla fruit seasons vary depending on the region where they are grown. In India the season is from December to March while in Florida the season is from May to September. In some tropical regions the trees seem to bear fruit continuously. Fruits are ready to be picked when the scruffy coating on the skin can be easily removed and when the underneath skin turns from brown to a light yellow color. Under ripe fruits are hard, gummy, and taste very astringent due to high levels of tannins. They are often set aside for a couple of days to soften and sweeten.
Fresh sapodilla fruit is difficult to find outside of its growing regions but canned fruit may be found in Hispanic markets. If you are shopping for fresh fruit, look for ones that are unbruised and yield a bit when pressed. Harder fruits can be left on the kitchen counter for several days to ripen. Ripe fruits will keep for several days in the fridge and pieces of the fruit freeze well. Sapodilla fruit is generally eaten raw and is often served by simply cutting the fruit in half. The skin is firm enough to serve as a sort of shell to hold the fruit. The fruit can also be cut into chunks and added to a fruit salad. Be careful to remove the inedible seeds from the fruit. Sapodilla fruit can also be pureed into a sauce and cooked to make preserves and syrup. Brown sapodilla flesh will turn a more appealing red color when cooked. The fruit can be used in pies, tarts, and quick breads or muffins. It can also be dried or fermented to make wine.