Lifeform of the week: Enter the dragon fruit

2012 may already be a few weeks old, but the Chinese New Year is just getting underway. January 23rd marks the beginning of the auspicious Year of the Dragon, the only mythical creature among the 12 animal signs of the Chinese zodiac. Dragons in Chinese culture aren’t the fire-breathing monsters that appear in western legends. The regal, ornate dragons of the East are symbolic of power and vitality and, of course, luck.

To celebrate this important year, let’s get acquainted with a real creature as magnificently flamboyant as its mythical namesake. Behold, dragon fruit!

Eastern treats

Dragon fruit, also called pitaya, is the fruit of a climbing vine cactus. It’s popular throughout much of Asia, but those of us living in the West can find it too, with a bit of luck. I first encountered it at the huge Asian mega-market in the north of Austin that also stocks longan berries and the dreaded durian, though any store well-versed in exotic fruits is likely to carry it.

Given its name and its tendency to turn up in Chinatown fruit stands, you might guess that dragon fruit had a tradition in Asian cuisine dating back to the Shang dynasty. But you’d be horribly wrong. Dragon fruit, or pitaya, is a new world foodstuff – native to Mexico, Central and South America – introduced to Asia a paltry century ago when the French, of all people, brought it to Vietnam for cultivation. Don’t feel too bad, though, it’s an easy mistake to make. Even at our local Mexican supermarket, pitayas hang out with the Chinese eggplants and snow peas, rather than the tomatillos and poblanos.

But like the tomato in Italy, dragon fruit has become something of an ambassador for the land it immigrated to. Vietnam is now a major grower and exporter of the agricultural dragons and other countries such as China, Malaysia, and Taiwan have also joined the pitaya cultivation market.

Growth market

Blooming dragon flower. Image Credit: Eran Finkle.

Production of dragon fruit isn’t limited to eastern farms. Anyone with a suitable climate can have a go at it (pitayas aren’t keen on frost or extremes of heat and sunlight) Dragon fruit makes a decent commercial crop in that it only take a few years after planting to get good yields. On the downside, the viney plants require trellising for support, which means a greater initial investment than just planting seeds.

The flowers of the dragon fruit bloom at night and are quick to wilt and fall off if not pollinated promptly. Nocturnal pollinators like bats and moths are well-suited for this work. If there aren’t any bats on the payroll, however, the plants will need to be pollinated by hand. Some species of dragon fruit can also self-pollinate, but this tends to result in smaller fruits.

The species Hylocereus undatus, or red pitaya, is the most common representative of dragon fruit found in stores. More rare are the yellow pitaya (Hylocereus megalanthus) and the Costa Rica pitaya (Hylocereus costaricensis), which has a skin similar to the red pitaya but is a vivid pink inside.

Inside story

With their shocking fuchsia peels studded with flame-like green scales, it’s not hard to see why pitayas were nicknamed dragon fruit. But for all its exterior pageantry, the dragon fruit is a little timid on the inside. The monochromatic white flesh dotted with black seeds stands in contrast to its mighty veneer. The taste is mild, the texture similar to a kiwi fruit. One expects fireworks but the reality is closer to a nightlight. Not bad, but hardly the stuff of legend.

Too make up for the disappointing sensory experience, dragon fruit offers its consumers some Vitamin C and the reassuring knowledge that it’s low sugar by fruit standards. The seeds also contain essential fatty acids, but you’ll have to chew them if you want to actually absorb any of the nutrient.

Popular pitayas

Despite its less than powerful taste, dragon fruit is becoming increasingly fashionable in the West. Herbal tea, vodka, and vitamin water have been infused with its subtle flavor (and more importantly, their labels adorned with the fruit’s conspicuous image and name). If you look hard enough, you can even find dried dragon fruit, which I recall tasting like a slightly salty fruit roll-up (that’s better than it might sound).

The year of the rabbit (Feb 3, 2011 to Jan 22, 2012) was not a bad one for dragon fruit. A May 2011 New York Times piece announced its newfound chic status among gourmet chefs. Of course, restaurant and product trends can be fickle, but with the good fortune promised by Chinese astrology behind them, who knows what these ambitious pitayas can accomplish. Perhaps the year of the dragon will also be the year of the dragon fruit.

More Lifeforms from Alex Reshanov

January 23, 2012

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