I’d guess that about half of my time in South-East Asia was spent kicking around the market. Whether in a tiny mountain town, an ocean-side village, or the big cities, I could count on finding an open-air market full of strange and exotic foods. As early as four a.m the morning market is already filling up with fresh produce, warm soy milk, and tasty breakfast treats. In a larger town multiple markets will pop up throughout the day and even the smallest villages support some kind of market again in the evening so that I could often spend the entire day investigating the cornucopia of fresh fruits, endless rice confections, and assorted animal bits. Chicken feet, buffalo stomach, and toads on a stick, while novel, often did not seem worth the risk of actually consuming. However, I made it a goal to try every kind of fruit I came across.
Tropical regions support a wide variety of exotic, foreign, and down-right strange looking and tasting fruits. From the noxious odor of the durian
to the alien seed pod appearance of the rambutan
, I thought I’d seen and tasted about everything the world of fruits could offer when I was walking through the streets of Vientiane
and saw a street cart full of what looked like small, pink pineapples. So I bought a dragonfruit and hurried back to the hotel to dissect it and hopefully find something edible.
Under the large, green-tipped, pink scales the fruit is all meat, white in color and flecked throughout with black seeds. The texture is somewhat like a watermelon but with no stringy fibers. The seeds are soft, flavorless, and edible, which is a good thing as it would be practically impossible to pick them out. The meat is light and crisp with a subtle flavor something like watermelon and something like kiwi. It is very juicy and I ended up slicing mine in half and eating it with a spoon right out of the shell.
I’ve been looking for dragonfruit in the states since my return with no luck. But I have found out a lot about the fruit.
There is a lot of confusion as to where dragonfruit comes from. Many sources, including gourmetnews.com, claim it is from South-East Asia. Vietnam and Malaysia are both producing dragon fruit as an export and it is also available in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. The Vietnamese name for the fruit is “trai thanh long”.
The true origin appears to be South America where the fruit has another name that has multiple spellings. Pitaya, Pithaya, Pitahaya, and Pitaja, all derivitives of the Ta’no
word meaning scaly fruit, refer to the fruit of a cactus family plant called Hylocereus. There are two varieties of this genus. Hylocereus Undatus with white flesh like the one I bought is the most common in South-East Asia and supposedly a bit more tart than its sweeter, red-fleshed sister Hylocereus Polyrhizus. These two have a cousin with bright yellow, bumpy skin with white flesh with the scientific name Selenicereus Megalanthus. All are referred to by the same common name. ilovepitaya.com/ claims that Americans brought the dragon fruit or Pitaya, which has a third common name of strawberry pear, to South-East Asia during the Vietnam War. This seems a bit odd considering that dragonfruit is not common at all in North America, but it did find its way from its Andean home in Columbia
(the major South American exporter), Venezuela
, to South-East Asia and now most of the tropical world. California and Australia are also working to develop dragonfruit farms.
This fruit is definitely best fresh out of the rind. Slice it open, grab a spoon and dig in. Many people claim it makes a fantastic milk shake and it is 83% liquid so you can get a lot of delicious juice out of it. The juice is used in mixed drinks in South America, including “panther piss
” which is a mix of rum and dragonfruit juice. The unopened flower buds of the plant can be used as a vegetable (much like banana flowers) in stews, curries, or salads. Dragonfruit extract is beginning to be used in more commercial foods in the west like Snapple’s “Fire” drink and one of the “Stash” brand herbal teas. Like many other exotic fruit flavors, these manufactured products reflect little if any of the flavor of the actual fruit.
Canadians and Australians may have better luck finding the fruit than Americans as it appears that there are import regulations that keep this fruit out of the USA. That may vary by region and the best place to look for it is at a major cities Chinatown.
ilovepitaya.com/ also makes a few health claims about dragon fruit. It supposedly aides digestion, prevents colon cancer and diabetes, and reduces cholesterol and high blood pressure. However these claims are made about many herbs, fruits, and veggies, especially by marketers like ilovepitaya.com. So I wouldn’t expect any medical miracles from dragonfruit.
The cactus also has a beautiful and fragrant flower, which only blooms at night and normally for one night only. In that short period of time it must be pollinated (usually by the hawk moth
) in order for the fruit to set. If the fruit does set it generally takes a 40-45 days to mature. It produces year round in tropical climates yielding fruit four or five times per year. It is possible to order seeds or start a new plant from a clipping, but don’t expect much fruit if you are growing outside tropical climates.