cash crops

Across the tropical belt, we find cash crops (agriculture for export) such as rubber, palm oil, coffee, tea, sugar cane, mais, and tobacco. They were disseminated at different times through various colonial networks for instance via the Spanish empire from the New World to the Philippines, via the British from the Malay archipelago to the Caribbean, and the Dutch and Portuguese trade posts from East Africa to the Indo-Malay world and to Macau. Early Arab trade routes parallel to the expansion of Islam were part of the early exchanges.

Today, Malaysia and Honduras import the same vegetables as the export. Their main partners are the US and China and surrounding countries such as Thailand and Guatemala.

El rambután

The name of the fruit “rambutan” stems from the Malay word for “hair” (cabello), a reference to the “hairy” shell. It originates from the lowlands of Indonesia. This fruit travelled via Arabic trade routes to East Africa during the expansion of Islam between the 10th and the 13th centuries. Much later, in the 19th century, the Dutch brought the rambutan from the Dutch East Indies to Suriname where it spread to the tropics of Central America. The Malay name for the fruit is used in Spanish and it is widely cultivated in Honduras and in Malaysia.


Belimbing asam (mimbro in Spanish) is a sour fruit used for chutney, jams, and pickles; preserved dried or salted, and is eaten with rice and beans or curry. Native to the Malay world, it was carried from the island of Timor to Jamaica in 1793 from where it spread to Central America. Its journey may have overlapped with that of the breadfruit (see post on Victorian travellers).


Guava originates in Central America/Caribbean but can be found across the tropics today. It is eaten as a jam or fresh - with cumin and salt.


The ciku fruit is native to Central America (el zapote in Spanish; sapodilla in English) and was introduced to the Philippines via the Spanish Empire. Today, it is widely cultivated in Malaysia and Mexico (mainly Yucatan).

Prickly Pear

Native to Central America, this cactus plant was cultivated in the gardens of British trade posts in Southeast Asia. It makes an appearance in William Farquhar’s collection of watercolors of Malayan flora and fauna from the early nineteenth century.

A Note on Names - Dutch Bananas and Custard Apples: The soursop-like “custard apple” is native to the New World but common in the Malay world. In Malaysia, figs are called pisang belanda (Dutch banana). Some colonial officers have even described the scent and flavor of durians as “very ripe strawberries.” Pisang raja and plantains (yellow, yellow, tasty fellow) “Indigenous to Southeast Asia” but often associated with cuisines of Central America, the Caribbean, and West Africa.