Friday, September 07, 2007

Dragonfruit Season

Edited with a new image, below!
It's been far, far too long since I've managed to post here, and I apologize. Our unexpected trip to the US, my mother-in-law's passing, pneumonia, and simply having a husband at home again have all taken their toll. But...it's time to get back to adventures, and I'm still so very behind! Here's another grocery store story, to tide us all over until I can post more this weekend about my adventures with MM.

I was browsing through my favorite neighborhood grocery recently, examining the produce, which never fails to surprise me. There were the plump and lovely summer tomatoes (remember how that one turned out?) and deeply-pigmented bell peppers, shinier and smaller than the broad-shouldered monsters I'm used to. I edged along the aisle lined with careful rows of hideously expensive canteloupes and spherical watermelons, jewel-faceted plastic bowls of tiny tangerines and heaps of slender, purply-black eggplant. Ginger, cleaner and less wrinkly than the knobs in the commissary, sits beside something that looks like ginger, but isn't, with reddish bud shapes growing out of it like the buds of a waterlily. There are delicate stacks of toothy shiso leaves and several versions of scallions of varying thickness and straightness (the long onion I've read about in cookbooks?), beside obscenely thick and pale logs of daikon radish.

The boxes of perfect white button mushrooms are quite expensive, and each box contains perhaps ten small mushrooms...but as if to make up for it, there are so many other varieties of fungus. There are bunches of tiny, willowy enoki, like bleached dandelion stems after the fuzz has been blown away, and fresh, flat-capped shiitake piled like skipping stones. There are fat mushrooms, all thick stem with a little flare of cap at one end, and bouquets of brown-capped mushrooms that seem to be separate until one picks up a package and finds all the stems are fused at the bottom into one big clump, and one ruffly kind of mushroom that looks as if it's trying to pretend to be a head of lettuce.

One largeish refrigerated section of this tiny market is entirely filled with small plastic bags of pickles -- a huge variety of land and sea vegetables in brine or vinegar, with garlic, with sandy miso paste, with tiny red rings of chiles.

One of the things I like the most about Japanese markets is the seasonal availability of the produce. Sure, some things are available year-round, and that is the case more and more. But much more than in American markets, certain things are only available when they're in season...which means they're still being bred for taste and sweetness and succulence and aroma, not how well they'll travel or how long they'll last on the shelf. There's also a great reverence for produce from certain areas....mushrooms and potatoes from Hokkaido, gigantic, frosted-black-skinned clusters of grapes from Kyoto, peaches from this area and apples from that.

Yes, quite often the produce is insanely expensive by American standards, but to be honest, I think I'd rather have a single basket of strawberries so fragrant and sweet I'll remember them for months, than a basket every month of hard, green-tasting berries with no scent. Suddenly I can imagine spending two or three dollars on a single peach, when I'll only need the one, and it will be an experience of really savouring a single exquisite fruit. I finally truly, viscerally understand the concept of quality over quantity. Can you really remember the last bunch of grapes you ate? The last apple? The last time you closed your eyes and sighed with pleasure from the experience of eating one perfect tangerine? The memory of the peach I chose is going to stay with me for a long, long time...and I'd rather wait with anticipation for the next season than have a tasteless imitation out of season.

I chose an inexpensive (relatively -- less than $6) globe of a watermelon, and an intensely fragrant, Roald Dahl-style peach, almost half as big as the watermelon, and a clear plastic bowl of tiny tangerines. And then, I saw the oddest fruit I've ever seen. It was an oval fruit, larger than an apple, like something that ought to grow out of a cactus. The thick, smooth skin was bright fucshia studded with green-tipped...spines? Flippers? Protruding leaves? One was almost $3 (which I later discovered was insanely cheap...I found less attractive specimens for almost three times that price in another store!) and carefully nestled in a nest of styrofoam netting. I picked one up gingerly, afraid the spiny parts might stick or sting me, and found the sticking-out parts to be relatively soft and leathery, and the fruit itself to be heavy for its size.
Of course I bought one.
The cashier tried to tell me what it was, but it took several tries before I understood that she was trying to tell me in English -- it was a dragonfruit, which made total sense. Take a look. What else would you call it?
I took it home (took photos, of course), and looked it over. How to go about this? Well, there's sort of a hole at one end, where it was attached to its parent, I assume. I took hold of one edge of the hole and pulled. The skin peeled back easily, revealing a white oval of flesh the shape and size of a large goose egg. A knife blade slipped easily into the egg, and a wedge pulled out showed that the flesh was studded throughout with a galaxy of tiny black seeds. No pit, no core. Everything encased by the skin was edible. The taste and texture was much like a kiwi fruit, but without the kiwi's tartness, and the seeds were almost indiscernable, just adding a nice hint of crunch, again like a kiwi. It was pleasantly sweet and very moist, and I enjoyed it very much.

I've since learned from my more knowledgeable friend, D, that dragonfruit are native to Okinawa, there are two types of dragonfruit, and the second type has vivid fucshia flesh. I'll have to keep my eye out for the second kind! After the first one (and the squeal of delight from D when I told her about it!) I hurried back to buy more. I bought one for D, one for myself and Fearless Husband, and one for Miyuki's parents as a gift. That's all...there were no more, and I haven't found any in any store since.

I'll have to mark my calendar for next year, so I don't miss dragonfruit season!
Edited to add the photo of the dragonfruit growing from Emiri! Now I can really see why they call it dragonfruit! And I was sort of right...it looks like the fruit of a cactus/succulent. Thanks for the photo, Em!

13 comments:

Mary Witzl said...

What a great post, Carolie. You have made me hungry for Japanese peaches! I can still remember one beautiful white peach I ate in Shikoku more years ago than I care to recall.

I've never eaten dragonfruit, and I admire your sense of adventure. One of the fruits I have always found fascinating is the durian -- so smelly it is very off-putting, but absolutely delicious nevertheless.

Emiri said...

I am very happy to see that you discovered the dragon fruit! I didn't know they were available on mainland Japan. I ended up getting the the hot pink kind everytime I bought them back in Okinawa. However, I noticed that the white ones were more frequently served in restaurants than the hot pink kind. I had a garden salad served to me with a ring of white dragon fruit on the outside. The pink and white look exactly the same from the outside and I'd say they taste pretty much the same as well. I'm going to send you a picture of how they grow!
Miss you (and Nihon too)!
~Em

Carolie said...

Mary -- thank you for stopping by, and for your kind words! I'd LOVE to find durian. I've read about it, and the horrible smell, but I figure I really adore stinky cheeses, so I'd be willing to try the smelly fruit. And yes, the Japanese peaches have amost supplanted (what blasphemy!) my memories of rosy gold South Carolina peaches from the roadside stands of my childhood.

Emiri, thank you so much for stopping by! Too bad I didn't visit you during dragonfruit season...but I'm so glad I visited when I did! I want to find the dragonfruits with the pink insides just to see them! Miss you, wish you could visit!

Paula said...

Do computers come with smell-o-vision? I swear the scent of peaches and dragon fruit is wafting over me right now. Not that I have the faintest idea what a dragon fruit smells like really...

I am a fruit snob too. I'm glad to be in such good company!

It's the start of apple season here, and I'm waiting for the first Honey Crisps. My mouth is watering just thinking of them...

q said...

Surprisingly, I've just had a completely opposite experience with fruits.
I went to London for work, and during my last week there bought a pack of plums. Four plums, supposedly very cheap.
Well, as much as I like plums, I couldn't eat the last one and guiltily threw it out. They all tasted the same: a bit like plums, a bit like perfumed gum.
After that I finally understood why they were always talking about organic produce ~_~

Carolie said...

Mmmmm...apple season! Thanks for stopping by, Paula! I actually found one last bedraggled dragonfruit yesterday, and after your comment, I had to get up and smell it...no discernible aroma. But the peach was definitely intensely fragrant!

q, so glad you stopped by again! And so sorry you had a bad plum experience. To be honest, I've never had a plum I liked except for those I've picked directly from a tree. I think the one time I tried plums from the market here, I purchased a kind that weren't meant to be eaten out of hand, but I'm not sure. They were a little tart, very mildly sweet, and mostly bland. A real disappointment. I've learned to purchase 90% of my fruit by how it smells! (Dragonfruit is, however, an exception to that rule!)

Mary Witzl said...

I'm wondering if q's plums weren't the kind you're meant to cook for jam. I made the mistake of trying to eat those too, when I was first in the U.K., and they were just awful: tough, leathery, bland, with no juice or perfume at all.

I still remember the plums of my childhood: satsumas, a deep, rich magenta speckled with orange-golden flecks. You bit into their skins and the juice -- nectar, really -- practically exploded out of the fruit and ran down your chin. They were so good I almost preferred them to chocolate. Almost...

A Paperback Writer said...

That is a cool fruit. I'll have to tel my students about this thing. I'm so glad you took all the photos and explained it so well.
The month that I spent in China brought many trials with food (and I am not a picky eater), but the things I liked most were the fruits and veggies. I really liked lotus root. Your experience reminds me of sampling stuff in China. (Sorry, I've never been to Japan, so China's the closest thing to which I can relate.)

Carolie said...

Mary, I think you may be right. I've read that certain plums are meant for jam or jelly, and I think there is a kind of ume here that is meant for a special miso pickle.

Paperback writer, thank you for stoppinb by, and welcome! I like lotus root too, both for its lovely crunch and for the pretty flower stencil. I haven't been to China yet, but am hoping to get there while we're living on this side of the Pacific (and to Thailand, and Cambodia, and Vietnam, and Laos, and Bali, etc., etc., etc.!)

q said...

Mary Witzl, I really don't think they were for jam. They were sold in packs of four and even for those big plums that doesn't seem enough for the jam?
Thankfully, I'm home now and eating our very small but very tasty plums =3

Mary Witzl said...

Hello, Carolie -- I've just tagged you!

Anonymous said...

hi if you would like to buy some more dragon fruit you can actually order it online. the site is http://www.1-800-organicfruitofthemonthclub.com/dragonfruit.html. That's where I usually purchase my exotic fruits when the stores around me doesn't have it.

Carolie said...

Anonymous, thank you for your tip...that's a great idea!