Pitaya: the Drag Queen of Exotic Fruit

Slice open a dragonfruit and this is what you'll find.

This essay originally appeared Oct. 13, 2009, at Examiner.com.

Amidst the piles of bok choy, gai lan, and other Asian vegetables at last Wednesday’s farmers’ market at San Francisco’s Civic Center was a box filled with what appeared to be several kohlrabi in full drag. Brilliant fuschia, I picked one up in amazement. The look on my face must have tipped off the vendor because she asked me “Do you know what that is?”

I had no idea.

“Dragon fruit,” she replied. “They’re very sweet.”

Sounded good to me and suitably exotic, to boot. Standing nearby was an older woman with a heavy Russian accent. “They are very, very nutritious,” she chimed in. “I eat them often.”

Well, that pretty much settled it. I’ll give it a shot, I told the vendor. How much?

“Five dollars,” she replied. OK, by that point, I was committed and my curiosity too aroused to ignore. I pulled the last five ones from my wallet and handed them over, depositing my flashy fruit into my grocery bags with the other produce I had purchased at other stands.

Once I got the dragon fruit home, I began looking for information on line. As it turns out, dragon fruit – also known as pitaya, pitahaya, and thang loy – is immensely popular in much of Asia. The vendor, who had grown the fruit on her farm near Sacramento, had said as much, adding that her father had planted the trees from seed back in 1989. Despite its popularity in Asia, it’s actually native to Central America.

Pitaya is rich in vitamins – C, most notably – as well as numerous other nutrients including B vitamins, phosphorous and, surprisingly, calcium. It’s a good source of fiber and, like watermelon, it’s a watery fruit and quite refreshing.

In California, pitaya is in season from September through November. When ripe (the skin should give gently but remain firm) the inedible skin peels away easily to reveal either white, bright red, or even yellow flesh underneath. Like kiwi, to which it’s similar in taste, it’s filled with hundreds of tiny, black, edible seeds. The flesh is firm but easy to cut, which makes it a natural for fruit salads. It will hold its shape nicely cut into cubes or other shapes, and remain firm enough to provide a wonderful contrast with other ingredients. Pitaya chills nicely; store it in the refrigerator.

Pitaya seems to inspire flamboyance – or silliness, depending upon your viewpoint – in its fans. Those who have helped to develop new strains of the fruit seem to find that normal adjectives simply aren’t descriptive enough. One Florida grower offers David Bowie, Bloody Mary, Purple Haze, Seoul Kitchen, Cosmic Charlie, and L.A. Woman among his selections. I can only imagine what it must be like to ask for five pounds of Purple Haze at a market.

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