With the influx of ethnic cooking in the U.S., tropical produce, such as bananas, mangoes, papayas and pineapples, are becoming more popular than ever.

Restaurants, cruises and TV food shows are eager to introduce new tastes, says Mary Ostlund, marketing director for Brooks Tropicals Inc., Homestead, Fla.

The rapid market growth of tropical fruits is due to the industry’s focus on innovative items that appeal to a wider audience, says John Loughridge, vice president of marketing for Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A. Inc., Miami. Excite guests by finding new ways to prepare and cook with these fruits. Take advantage of exotic treats and the novelty of the different sizes, colors and flavors of the varieties.

GO BANANAS

Diners probably are most familiar with the cavendish variety typically found at the grocery store. The green-to-yellow fruits are the most popular on buffet lines or for breakfast and brunch. Executive chef Tony Merola of Merola Marketing, Weston, Fla., suggests using them when they still have a green tip and are a bit firmer and easier to work with.

If you want creamier fruit, try the blue java banana, also called the ice cream banana because of its texture and sweet taste with a hint of vanilla. The fruit, which goes from blue-green to yellow, is so soft it can be used as a spread when it’s very ripe, says Ken Love, research project manager at the University of Hawaii, Captain Cook, Hawaii.

A popular variety in Hawaiian restaurants is the ele ele, which tastes like a cross between a banana and the more starchy plantain. Traditionally, only men from the royal Hawaiian family were allowed to eat the fruit, Love says. Its history draws customers in to try it.

For Latin, West Indian and African cooking, you’ll want to try plantains, which are usually cooked in both the green and ripe stages, says David Lund, director of innovation and new product development for Chiquita Brands International Inc., Cincinnati. This versatile variety can be used like a potato for mashing, baking, frying, boiling or barbecuing. Like the other banana varieties, it gets sweeter as it ripens, going from green to yellow to black.

Paul Heerlein, chef instructor at the University of Hawaii culinary arts program at the Kona campus, prefers the sweet-tart taste of the apple banana to make fried fritters. It is smaller and firmer than the cavendish, which makes it a good choice for tempura, adding cinnamon and sugar and serving with Tahitian vanilla ice cream with rum syrup.

MASTER MANGOES

Mangoes often have been called the most consumed fruit in the world, but many Americans have yet to try them.

At Melissa’s/World Variety Produce Inc., Los Angeles, there are three popular varieties for foodservice use. They are the tommy atkins, keitt and ataulfo, says Kelly O’Dell, foodservice marketing and public relations spokeswoman for Melissa’s.

Tommy atkins is the common U.S. variety with red skin and orange, somewhat fibrous flesh and a sweet tropical taste. The larger keitt is attractive to restaurants because it yields more fruit. Even when ripe it keeps its green skin. Its orange fiberless flesh has a fine texture and a super-sweet taste. The ataulfo, also called the champagne mango, is smaller and creamier. The sweet-tart fruit has yellow skin and flesh and has less fiber than the tommy atkins with a thinner pit.

To prepare mangoes, Melissa’s recommends slicing the flattest sides of the fruit and taking out the seed. Cut criss-cross patterns in the flesh, making sure not to pierce the skin. Finally, turn the skin inside out for easy serving and an attractive presentation.

PEP UP PAPAYA

The star of the papaya scene is the strawberry variety. The salmon-red to pink flesh is sweeter than other varieties, and the fruit is the top-seller at Melissa’s, O’Dell says.

The strawberry papaya is more elegant, like beluga to caviar, Heerlein says.

After you scoop out the small black seeds, papayas act as natural bowls for fruit, chicken or shrimp salads. For larger bowls, try maradol papayas, which weigh 3 to 5 pounds. You also can bake, stew, sauté and barbecue the fruit with meat, poultry and seafood. The enzyme papain in the fruit is a meat tenderizer.

RING IN PINEAPPLE

Gold and baby pineapples are the varieties getting the most attention, O’Dell says. Both have a higher sugar content than other varieties, and you can use the babies for decoration with items such as baby bananas.

The baby also works well for single-servings, says Love of the University of Hawaii.

Francesco Esposito, senior development chef of innovative dining solutions for Aramark, Philadelphia, recommends finding a good balance of sweetness and acidity. If you grill pineapple, the fruit doesn’t need to be as sweet as for fruit salad.

Heerlein at the University of Hawaii makes pineapple and shrimp fried rice with small dices of pineapple, medium dices of shrimp and shiitake mushrooms, green and white onion, medium or short grain rice and ginger.

DON’T GET LEFT STRANDED

As with any unfamiliar or exotic produce items, you have to learn to overcome the challenges.

The ripening process can be confusing, but you can use the different stages to your advantage for optimal texture. For example, use just-ripe green papayas for cooking; ripe but still firm papayas to chop into salads and salsas; and very ripe, softer papayas to puree, suggests Ostlund of Brooks Tropicals.

Ostlund recommends putting items on your menu for the various ripening stages to avoid wasting product because it’s over- or unripe for a single dish. Then you can order the produce continuously to ensure you have some product to use at each stage.

It’s important to know how to ripen, Merola says. You should never give guests unripe tropical produce because the taste can be so unpleasant it will turn them off of the fruit permanently. And although tropical produce is available year-round, understanding where the fruit comes from and it’s peak season makes a difference in getting prime flavor.

Care and handling becomes a problem because restaurant staff may not realize how delicate tropical produce is, especially if it’s not ripe and still firm. Unripe fruit bruises as easily as ripe, although blemishes may not show up until you see the ripened flesh.