It is weird-looking, it is wonderful and astonishing, it is one of the most aesthetically pleasing fruits you will come across during your stay in some Asian countries: it is the dragon fruit. If you have never seen or tried one, you may not recognize it, but a short stroll to one of the local markets will give you the chance to notice this impressive looking fruit, and you will surely be tempted to taste it.
The dragon fruit is called geow mangon in Thailand, but it is also known as strawberry pear or pithaya elsewhere in the world. This unusual looking fruit is quite round in shape and very bright red and pink in colour, with very prominent scales around its skin. Its season runs from March to November, they are relatively cheap when in season and they are usually available all year round at slightly higher prices. They are generally sold in basket by market vendors, but you may also find them sold out of the back of pick-up trucks, on carts or prepared ready to eat in plastic bags and blisters. It is cheap, beautiful and a real pleasure to eat.
Dragon fruits can weigh 150-600 grams and the flesh, which is eaten raw, is mildly sweet. Cutting through the leathery, slightly leafy skin can fell like cutting into the skin of a melon, where you can feel the stark contrast of the inside flesh. These fruits come in three different variations:
Hylocereus undatus – this type has a triangular shaped stem and is characterized by scarlet coloured skin with green minimal number of spined bracks that cover an inner opaque white flesh speckled with tiny black seeds. This type has a slightly citrus flavour. One fruit can weigh up to 1kg!
Hylocereus polyrhizus – same triangular shaped stem and scarlet coloured skin but with more spines, and with a deep red flesh having a mild sweet taste.
Selenicereus megalanthus – this variety is the unusual one, with contrasting yellow skin, white flesh, and fruits being smaller than the above two varieties and containing higher levels of sugar.
The dragon fruit is indeed unusual since it is the fruit of a climbing cactus species of the Hylocereus genus. Native to Mexico and northern South America, the dragon fruit plants are now cultivated in Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam (the French introduced it there 100 years ago, and it is now the leading fruit export, with some farms producing up to 30 tons of fruit a year per hectare!), the Philippines and Malaysia, since it is well suited to dry and arid areas (it can cope with very high temperatures but also with short periods of frost) that have moderate amount of rain (too much rain can kill the plant).
Dragon fruit plants are vine-like and can grow anywhere, with roots that can attach themselves to anything. These arial roots grow out of the soil until they find a tree to attach themselves to, and a mature plant can reach a length of 6 meters. The fruits set on the cactus tree between 30 to 50 days after flowering and can produce 4 to 6 harvests per year.
The dragon fruit’s magnificent flowers are large, white and fragrant, typical of cactus, can reach a length of 35 cm and only bloom at night, lasting one night only. Due to this, pollination is unusual and takes place not by birds, but nocturnal creatures such as moths and bats, and must happen on that particular night in order for the dragon fruit to produce a crop.
The plants sprout over two dozen buds, that are often called moonflower, or Queen of the Night.
You may see decorating slices of the dragon fruit on the side of your dish in a restaurant, and be puzzled, but eating it is not as daunting as you might think. I find it a bit like eating a melon or a kiwi: the texture upon eating is similar, and it has a prevalence of small black crunchy seeds in its flesh.
First of all, it is recommended that dragon fruit be eaten chilled rather than at room temperature, for it will taste much better. You can start by cutting the fruit in half, peel it off and eat the flesh as it is, or scoop out the flesh with a spoon like you would with a sorbet. Its sweet taste is mild and is not as intense as other tropical fruits, though you will find its taste very bland considering how exciting it looks. Remember, dragon fruit needs to be peeled, and the rind is not to be eaten! You do not have to worry about the tiny seeds in the flesh, they are indigestible but can be eaten no problem.
Recommended ways of eating dragon fruits include cubed and mixed as a great addition to exotic fruit salads and together with ice cream.
Dragon fruits can and should be drunk. They have high water content so they are more than suitable for juicing in a blender, as well as mixing with forzen cocktails and smoothies. The juice can be even fermented into a wine! Last but not least, the dragon fruit flowers can be eaten or steeped as tea.
How easy it is to grow your own dragon fruit cactus depends on the weather and on your green fingers. The first step is to scoop out some of the flesh and to separate the seeds (but only when you are ready for planting, that is). Prepare a pot with good gritty potting compost only 1 to 2 inch deep, sow in the pots, water it a bit and enclose the whole thing within a polythene bag. The location should get at least a few hours of direct sunlight a day; with filtered sunlight and warm temperature, the vine will grow root faster. You should water it once a week and let the soil dry up a bit.
At first the seedlings produce two leaves, which are the only leaves the plant will ever produce. It will take two weeks before the seedlings start to appear. After that, once the root is established, a spiny stem will begin to grow between the centre of these leaves, and soon after new vines will sprout from the nodes. As more limbs start to grow, you can decide to cut some and replant them near the parent plant, watering them once a day.
Dragon fruit roots will start growing from any surface of the plant and are intended to anchor to walls, tree bark, post etc in order to give the cactus stability and to absorb moisture and nutrients from wilted leaves and debris. DO not worry if you see some roots drying, this will not harm the plant. Once the arial roots start growing, the plant should be ready to bear some fruits. A way to induce the plant to fruit is to cut the tip of each of the plant limbs. In this way buds should sprout, with subsequent flowers and eventually fruits. If you water the plant too much, the flowers will rot or fall and the fruits will not produce.
Good luck with it, and let’s hope your home dragon fruit does not grow to 6 meter high!
It is so beautiful, it tastes good, and the dragon fruit is also very good for you! Rich in fibre, Vitamin B1, B2, B3 and C and minerals, the pithaya fruits are also high in Phosphorus. Their flesh, especially the once from the red variety, is highly valued for being rich in phytoalbumins, which have antioxidant properties. This all-round good fruit to eat is also low in calories, and in Taiwan is is used by diabetics as a food substitute for rice and as a source of dietary fiber.
Dragon fruit is Asian, is exotic, and is like most things in Asia it cries out for a legend. It does have a legend, and of course it involves… dragons!
The legend goes that it was dragons, thousands of years ago, to create the fruit, which would come out last after the fire breathed out by the dragon’s mouth. If the dragon was slain, the fruit would then be collected and presented to the Emperor, and this was an indication of victory and a very prized treasure. The dragon would then be eaten by the victorious soldiers, as it was believed that if you ate the flesh of the dragon, and especially the delicious meat of the tail, which is where they thought the fire originated, the soldiers would became empowered with the dragon’s strength and ferocity.
Dragon fruits get a bit of mixed reviews and some bad raps. Some say their initial taste cannot measure up to the striking appearance. Others claim they do not buy dragon fruit because it tastes bland. I personally enjoy the light, creamy texture and refreshing taste, and I am more than satisfied with the several ways it can be consumed in, and the fantastic health properties. So the next time you come across this wonderfully appealing fruit, do your body a favour and tuck in!