Updated: Sep 21, 2021
Get to know the Solanum Quitoense, also known as naranjilla or lulo. And while we're at it, why not add it into a cocktail? Check out our Naranjilla Spritz recipe too!
What is a Naranjilla?
Well-armed and fast-growing, Solanum Quitoense, also known as naranjilla or lulo. It's a large, fuzzy foliage covered in dark purple spikes that produces a bright orange-colored edible fruit. It's found throughout Central America and northern South America, but most common in Ecuador and Colombia. Bebedero is a cocktail bar and liquor store based in Costa Rica, and here we call it "naranjilla", so, for our purposes, we'll stick with that name. Naranjilla is not native to Costa Rica. most believe it originated in the Andes of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. The plant was introduced to Costa Rica around the 1950s and is considered to be a successful weed in both Costa Rica and Panama.
Naranjilla is part of the nightshade family, as are the tomato, potato, and eggplant, however, the flavor profile of the fruit is quite different. I would describe the taste as a mix of guava- kiwi -orange. When ripe, it can be on the tart and tangy side. The texture is not unlike that of a tomato.
Wild Costa Rican Naranjilla
Gorgeous but territorial, wild naranjilla is a plant that grabs your attention. The wild species are sometimes used as ornamental plants in gardens. Its leaves grow up to 45 cm and can be an elongated heart or oval-shaped. What really makes the plant a show stopper are those sharp purple spines on the leaves and stem.
Foragers beware; should you dare to go into range to grab the fruit from the wild version of the plant, we highly suggest gloves. You could also be patient and look out for fully ripe fruit. At its peak ripeness, naranjilla will often fall right off the plant. The prickly fuzz around the wild naranjilla actually protects bugs from getting to it, so that will give you a bit of time to collect it after it falls. But, again, even when found on the ground, please use gloves or a towel as the "peach fuzz" on naranjilla can be irritating to the skin.
If you are in a lowland area of Costa Rica, you may have found Solanum Sessiflorum. It's common on Costa Rica's Atlantic coast and is a close relative to naranjilla. The fruit will have less of purple tinge from the hairs on it, and the taste is not quite as appealing, but is still edible.
In Central and South America, spineless Solanum quitoense is grown as a fruit crop. This means that thankfully, there's a spineless form, so the fruits can be harvested without worry of scratching yourself repeatedly. Hybridization and grafting continues to be experimented with, as an easier to harvest version is still being sought out.
Flowers develop into round fruits around the size of a kiwi. When ripe, they become juicy, sweeter and the shell turns orange. The ripe plant's appearance hints towards a near relative: the tomato. In the market, you'll want to seek out fruits with a texture similar to a plum; firm, but that can be pressed into slightly. Green is unripe, a deep orange or yellow color is ideal.
How to Eat Naranjilla
It's not unlikely to see fruit stands in Colombia and Ecuador like this one that sell fresh, tangy naranjilla juice (remember, it can be called 'lulo' too). This juice usually has a bit of sugar added to cut down the natural acidity and is served icy cold.
If you've got your hands on some wild naranilla, remember to scrub off the prickly fuzz of the naranjilla fruit before eating it. Use some gloves and steel wool to remove the fuzz.
Non-wild naranjilla can be eaten straight out of your hand once you've removed the soft fuzz. It's full of small edible seeds, not unlike a kiwi. But, it is quite sour and some would recommend sprinkling a bit of sugar on it. I have also seen it be eaten with a sprinkle of salt, as the Costa Rican palate tends to favor citrus or acidity combined with salt.
If you live in North America or Europe, you can try having a look for naranjilla canned in syrup, frozen whole naranjillas or unsweetened pulp. I. recommend checking out the Latin American supermarkets in your area to see if you can purchase it fresh. But, I must say that working with the frozen whole fruit is a great alternative because you are getting it at ideal ripeness and it stores easily in the freezer for whenever you might want to use it.
Keep an eye out, we'll be posting a naranjilla cocktail recipe soon.