Have you ever tasted a strawberry pear? Or a pitahaya? How about the fruit of the night-blooming cactus? These are some of the evocative names for the same tropical treat: dragon fruit. Until quite recently you would have had to hunt down this wildly whiskered and bulbous magenta-red fruit in specialty ethnic markets or travel to find it. But dragon fruit is now appearing in the fancy corner of the produce aisle at your local supermarket, and it is trending on social media, thanks to devoted growers and its dramatic look.
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A single dragon fruit commands a fabulous price, anywhere from $3 to $6 each, and maybe even more depending on where you shop. Is it worth it? And should you splurge? Let's explore the lore, lure, and character of this exotic monster.
All the Different Dragon Fruit, and What They Taste Like
Despite their heft (each typically weighs up to a pound) dragon fruit are technically berries. They are borne not on a tree or shrub, but at the branch-tips of lanky, vigorously clambering cacti classified botanically in the Hylocereus genus. Native to Central and northern South America the cacti are night-flowering, with spectacularly large, scented white blooms produced on distinctively three-sided stems. After each bloom fades comes the fruit. In stores, the most commonly encountered species is Hylocereus undatus, or white-fleshed dragon fruit. Gorgeously ornamental, it has a bright fuchsia skin that is layered with green scales that appear tentacle-like when very fresh, before their tips wither. The interior is white and juicy and stippled with tiny black seeds. In cross-section it is dramatic. And the flavor? Despite the drama of its appearance, most store-bought dragon fruit has a delicately refreshing, only mildly sweet flavor.
Other species of Hylocereus produce dragon fruit, too, with different intensities of flavor and skins and flesh varying in color. Among them are H. ocamponis, with deep burgundy-red fruit, inside and out. H. costaricensis has red skin and psychedelically red flesh, while H. megalanthus is yellow skinned, with white flesh. And there are cultivars of each. Many dozens. Yellow dragonfruit can be found in stores. To try others, you might need to join the ranks of home growers and avid collectors who cultivate their own dragon fruit—trading cuttings for propagation or for grafting, or who grow patiently from seed—the supermarket types represent the weathered tip of a much more interesting tropical iceberg.
Dragon fruit were a popular pre-Columbian fruit in tropical regions of the Americas and the Caribbean, their seeds traveling by bird, or spreading through deliberate vegetative propagation: All you need to grow your own dragon fruit is a section of stem, which can be rooted to make a brand new plant. Spanish colonists introduced dragon fruit to the Philippines in the sixteenth century, while the French took it Indochina (now Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia) in the late nineteenth century. Today, dragon fruit are cultivated commercially in tropical and sub-tropical areas within their native range, through the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, Australia, Southeast Asia, and the U.S (in Hawaii, Florida, and California). Where the plants have escaped cultivation, dragon fruit is listed as invasive, in regions as diverse as Florida, southern Africa, and eastern Australia.
How to Shop for Dragon Fruit
When choosing dragon fruit at market, look for plump specimens with smooth skin. Shriveled skin and drying scales indicate a fruit beyond prime. If the fruit is morphing from pale green to bright pink, it is under ripe.
How to Prep and Eat Dragon Fruit
There are several ways to enjoy dragon fruit. Perhaps the most aesthetically rewarding is when it is part of dramatic and diverse tropical fruit platter, served at the end of a meal. Simply slice a dragon fruit down the middle to expose that vivid white interior and contrast with its lipstick-bright skin. Score the juicy flesh deeply so that portions can be lifted out with a spoon, or be generous and allow half a fruit per person.
Dragon fruit does not have to be treated as a dessert, either. After all, we don't choose cucumbers (also technically fruits, not vegetables) for their sweetness; we like them for their texture and juiciness. Similarly, serve dragon fruit as a savory salad ingredient: Toss the thick-sliced fruit with a little salt and lime and a few drops of sesame oil. A flurry of chile flakes would not hurt. Or offer a bowl of chopped dragon fruit to accompany hot dishes like Indian and Southeast Asian curries, or spicy Mexican stews. Scatter dragon fruit dice across a taco filling that features heat.
Chilled, ripe, and beautiful, dragon fruit is a cool and soothing mouthful—and very refreshing.