Beyond the Backyard: Suck Your Way to Health

in Featured/Issue 37 by

By Jenny Wildman

I came across an article about a strange fruit that can boost your brain function – something all seniors think of when they cannot remember names or misplace their glasses. The picture was that of the fruit known here as kenep, kinnip or guayo. The deciduous, polygamous kenep tree is part of the soapberry family along with logan, rambutan and lychee, all cousins to the northern chestnut. The scientific name is Melicoccus bijugatus commonly referred to as Spanish lime, quenepa, genip, chennet, talpajocote and mamoncillo from the verb mamar to suck. Kenep trees are native to South America and the Island of Margarita and also found in drier woodlands and gardens of the Caribbean and Central America. The tree is usually grown from seed but is also propagated by grafting and grows to an imposing height. Generally it needs two trees functioning as male and female. You need to choose your location carefully as the tree requires a lot of space and full sun. There are several different varieties with names like Queen, Montgomery, Jose Paton. There are other melicocci that bear fruit and look very similar, all mainly fruiting from start of the rainy season and here in Belize between June to September.

The fruit is a drupe which grow in bunches. In June I purchased a bag of kenep in San Ignacio market; they were on the smallish side but the ones I purchased on the Hummingbird were large and juicy. When the skin is firm and leathery kenep is ready to harvest and the fruit can keep unrefrigerated for a long time. They market and ship well but if picked too soon will turn black and spoil quickly. Crack open the crisp outer skin to reveal a glorious salmon-to-yellow shimmering pulp which covers one large seed, occasionally two. Take care as it is slippery and can be accidentally swallowed. Pop into the mouth and suck away at the juicy fibrous pulp, a bit sweet, a bit sour, often eaten with salt and chili. Usually it is eaten freshly picked as it is labor intensive to scrape off the flesh to make jams and juices although it is done and very tasty. The seeds can also be lightly roasted for eating and in Colombia they are canned. I roasted some and they taste somewhat like chestnuts crossed with garbanzos.

Bees that feast on the nectar-rich white flowers produce dark fragrant honey. The fruit juice has also been used as indelible ink and dye for clothes. Spilling juice can result in nasty brown stains impossible to remove. The roasted seeds blended with honey make medicine for diarrhea. In fact the list of health benefits from eating the fruit is long due to the many nutrients it contains: fiber, iron, protein, calcium, niacin, vitamins A, B1, B3, B6, B12, C, many essential flavonoids, phosphorous, carotene, lysine and tryptophan which increases serotonin aiding relaxation and curing insomnia. Regular consumption can lower cholesterol, aid digestion, regulate blood pressure, fight off infections, improve skin, remove parasites, prevent kidney stones and urinary infections plus boost the immune system. Oh, yes, I almost forgot, and improve brain function.

It is no wonder that Puerto Ricans turn out to Ponce to celebrate the annual Festival of the Quenepa each August. In Ponce they make a liquor called bili by boiling the fruit on the seed, mixing with cane rum, cane sugar, touch of vanilla, pouring the liquid into a plastic container and burying it in the yard for thirty days. It is a much-loved fruit, the taste of summer throughout the Caribbean. Cuba advertises for people to come taste the best mamoncillos every July – October and watch the locals gather the fruit using specially made ladders and picking poles. A lovely sight no doubt.

Other known uses include scattering the leaves on the ground to eliminate ticks and flees. Make a tea by boiling and steeping the leaves and fruits and use for parasites and intestinal problems. For diarrhea roast the seeds then grind into powder, add to boiled water and drink a cup three times a day. The roasted seeds can be made into flour as a substitute for cassava for baking.The heartwood of the tree is used for cabinetry and for building rafts, a shame as this means the end of the tree. Kenep make lovely ornamental roadside trees and great shade. So if this little sucker can do all of that I am definitely planting a few trees as soon as possible as they will take at least five years to bear.

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Photo by JJ Wildman.