Saturday, October 3, 2009

Playing with Fire? Nah, Just Dragon Fruit

On Mon., Oct. 5, I'll be on KPBS radio's "These Days" with Chef Trey Foshee of George's at the Cove talking about ethnic markets. He and I are big fans of these markets, loving them not just for the amazing products you find, but for the cultural experience of diving into another world.

I bring this up because people often remark on how uncomfortable they are at the idea of going to, say, 99 Ranch Market or Mitsuwa, Northgate Gonzalez or Lucky Seafood. They're worried that they won't know what to buy, that no one will understand them, or they're just intimidated by being someplace "foreign."

So, I tell you this story to underscore how completely non-intimidating these wonderful stores can be and how they have the potential to change the way you shop, cook, and eat.

Yesterday I decided to stop by several of my favorite places to pick up virtual "show and tell" items for the show. Listeners won't see them, but host Maureen Cavanaugh will and she likes to try new things. I walked around 99 Ranch picking up my favorite garlic peanuts, a package of sesame ball cookies, some packaged lily buds (great for hot and sour soup), and finally landed in the produce department. They had fresh water chestnuts, which I'd hoped for, and daikon, of course. Then I saw something unfamiliar. These brilliant fuschia dragon fruit (also known as Pitaya or Pitahaya Fruit).

I've heard of them, of course, but I don't actually recall having seen them--but here they are in a big bin and I've just got to have a couple. But, what do I do with them?

Well, I could just get some and go home and Google them, but there was a woman standing there, picking one up and turning it around in her hands, putting it down, and picking up another with apparent experience with the fruit. So, I asked her, "What do you do with them?" She and I got into a conversation about how you eat the fruit (she cuts off the ends, slices them lengthwise and peels the fruit like a banana), how you can add them to fruit salad, what a great deal they were because they're from Vietnam and not locally grown. Did I know they grow on cactus? It was terrific.

She showed me how to pick out nice ones (look for a bright color, no marks, firm but with a little give--"like kiwi," she said) and I started to move on. Then I saw another woman stop in front of the bin and ask her the same question. Then another. Soon there were about half a dozen Asian women and me, the lone Caucasian Jewish woman, standing around discussing the relative merits of dragon fruit. After about five minutes of animated discussion, everyone filled their carts and walked away satisfied.

This goes on all the time. Long ago I learned not to be shy in these situations from my mother, who often parks herself in front of an unfamiliar item and just waits for someone to come by so she can ask. And, she's gotten some great recipes out of that strategy.

So, really, there's nothing to fear when it comes to shopping at ethnic markets. Just be your friendly, inquisitive, polite self and ask someone for help. They'll probably love being considered an expert.

As for the dragon fruit, I took a couple home and still did my research. They're very nutritious (with carotene, calcium, B1, B2, B3, phosphorus, and Vitamin C) and are full of fiber. Interestingly, they aren't pollinated during the day by bees. Instead, they have huge aromatic flowers that bloom at night, with pollination performed by bats and moths.

How do you eat them? Sure, you can follow the lead of my new friend, but you can also just slice them in half lengthwise, slide a large spoon between the inedible skin and the flesh (which you'll see is studded with lots of itty bitty black edible seeds), and remove the flesh.

It's very dramatic looking, which is good, because, honestly, dragon fruit aren't a powerhouse of flavor in the same way mangos and papayas are (again, think kiwi). But, you can cut the fruit up and add it to a salad, eat it plain, juice it, or perhaps make it part of a tropical drink, like a daiquiri as @PaulaJohns suggested on Twitter. I'm also thinking smoothie or even a tropical homemade ice cream. Of course, you can also make it part of a sauce or even salsa. I found a couple of recipes on Your Produce Man's website for dragon fruit sauce, salsa, and chutney.

I hope you'll tune in on Monday. Trey and I have a lot of other great places and products to share in the hopes that you'll stop just driving by these stores and, instead, make a point of stopping in and trying something new.

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  1. played around with dragonfruit last year and made a chutney (wish i'd made more of it as, of course, now that it's matured it's delightful! lovely post....

  2. I'd love to go on a field trip with you to 99 Ranch sometime. I go there when I'm in need of certain items, but adventurous I'm not when it comes to just picking random things up to try!

  3. I enjoyed listening to you & Trey on NPR today. We are fortunate to live in such a diverse food area.