Thursday, January 17, 2013

What the heck is that? Dragon fruit

Last week my father-in-law reported seeing a new, fascinating fruit for sale at a local green-grocer. He's a botanical artist who admires fruit as much for its vegetation as its taste. He described an oblong fruit, mostly magenta, with leaves in an almost spear-like design flattened against the fruit.

"Something like this?" I asked, showing him this picture.

Now available in Chinatown!

His eyes lit up. We had a match.

I first encountered dragon fruit in Vietnam, on a magical trip that introduced me to many other unknown fruit. (Hey! Maybe I'll write about them!) The flesh of the dragon fruit, which looked like white sherbet filled with poppy seeds, was featured in a fruit salad. What the heck is that, I wondered.

When I asked about this mystery fruit, a waiter brought a whole fruit and presented it to me with a flourish. He then cut the fruit open, cut off some slices and put it on my plate.

When I presented him with my translation phrasebook,  opened to the Fruit section, he carefully reviewed the list and chose trai thanh long, green dragon - presumably because the distinctive leaves look a bit like dragon wings.

Now that's what I call full service!

Trai thanh long là ngon! (Dragon fruit is delicious!)

When cut, dragon fruit typically looks like this:

Wow, is this what a professionally taken photo looks like? (Image courtesy of morgueFile)

More recently, I've seen dragon fruit that looks like this - Red Dragon, if you will:
The search for red dragon is over!

The dragon fruit had a light, mildly sweet and refreshing flavor. With my eyes closed I might have guessed that it was in the same family as the kiwi.  

I researched the dragon fruit a bit and found out it's a cactus fruit. This is kind of amusing because my father-in-law is a major cactus enthusiast - perhaps his affinity for cacti was secretly prompting his interest in this unknown fruit? 

Pitaya in Israel by Etan Tal (courtesy Wikipedia)

I love cactus pears and now that you mention it, I kinda sorta saw a resemblance. Thick skin, rich magenta color inside and out in the red variety, edible seeds. Both types of cactus fruit originated in the Americas before making their respective ways to Asia and beyondBut there were also important differences.

Cactus pears, vicious needles (mostly) removed

Prickly pears (aka cactus pears, aka sabras, aka nopales pears) are vicious street fighters. I'd rather fight a dragon than spend the week pulling out a prickly pear's tiny needles from my oh-so-sensitive fingertips. (A hint that I should follow more often than I do: use gloves or a plastic bag to cover your hand while you cut away the treacherous peel.)

More importantly, prickly pears are very sweet and flavorful. And they're cheap - much, much cheaper than dragon fruit. 

But strangely, it's the less flavorful and more expensive cactus fruit that seems to be making its way to the big time. Recently I've seen detergents featuring "dragon fruit scent" and, even more startlingly, I've seen supermarket fruit labels on a pile of dragon fruit.

Have we hit the big time?
You know what's next - dragon fruit smoothies, dragon-tinis, inclusion in must-have beauty regimens, etc. There's no fighting star power!

Wanna know more about some unusual produce you've spotted? Send me a photo and your query and I'll see what I can do.

1 comment:

  1. A waiter at Rex Hotel Saigon told me dragon fruits would "erase that many spots on your face" (=freckles, I guess)....maybe they have plenty of Vitamin C?