A Fruit with a Future
From: New York Times, May 10, 2011
By: Jeff Gordinier
IF there is one thing the dragon fruit has mastered, it's the art of the Hollywood entrance.
not uncommon to hear a chorus of beguiled gasps when a dragon fruit -
also known as pitaya or pitahaya - is placed in front of an audience.
From the outside the fruit looks like a hot pink bulb ringed with a
jester's crown of curly greenish petals. Slice it open, and there's a
white (or, on rare occasions, fuchsia) scoop of sweet pulp speckled with
tiny black seeds. Either way, it suggests an Easter bonnet that Cruella
de Vil might wear in a drag remake of "101 Dalmatians," or an Italian
ice meant to be spooned up for space freaks in the cantina scene in
fruit is beautiful and at the same time very strange-looking, maybe
like something from Tim Burton - from ‘Beetlejuice,' " said José Andrés,
the Spanish-born chef, who arranges fried quail on dragon fruit sauce
in a dish he calls Like Water for Chocolate. It appears on the menu at
China Poblano, his new restaurant at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las
silver-screen comparisons are hard to resist, and lately they also
happen to be apt. If dragon fruit were an aspiring actress, the
Hollywood press would be hailing her as the latest "it" girl.
Suddenly the cactus-bred curio is appearing in too many places to count. Skyy is introducing a dragon-fruit-flavored vodka
this spring. Celestial Seasonings, the Colorado-based stalwart of
herbal infusions, recently began pairing powdered dragon fruit with
green tea. There's a Sumatra Dragonfruit version of Bai, a thirst
quencher made from the unroasted fruit of the coffee plant; a line of
Lite Pom that blends a few swigs of dragon fruit with pomegranate juice;
and a new pitaya-tinged cream liqueur called Dragon Kiss.
fruit has made cameo appearances as an ingredient on shows like
"Marcel's Quantum Kitchen" and "Top Chef Masters" and at a few local
bars. Dennis Cooleen, an owner of Alias on the Lower East Side of
Manhattan, conjured up a dragon fruit margarita for a Mexican-themed
dinner not long ago, and it was popular enough that he brought it back
for Cinco de Mayo. "It went with the Day of the Dead theme, because it's
white and milky with black dots," Mr. Cooleen said. "So it kind of
reminded me of an eyeball."
the context, dragon fruit has a knack for getting noticed. "A lot of
people aren't even aware of what the fruit is, but I can tell you that
everyone is attracted to it," said Kevin Gardner, the entrepreneur who
has been introducing Dragon Kiss liqueur around the country. "When they
see it, it seems to stimulate the senses of men and women."
it seems, if those men and women specialize in marketing. "For a
marketer, it's a dream come true, because how many dragon puns can you
come up with?" said Andrea Conzonato, the chief marketing officer for
Skyy vodka. "An orange is an orange. A raspberry is a raspberry. But
then you find a dragon fruit, and you're like, Where did this come from?
Why did I not know about this before?"
largely in Vietnam and in Central and South America, dragon fruit
sprouts like a psychedelic hood ornament from the arms of a cactus. That
can happen, however, only if the flower of the cactus is properly
pollinated, and pollination happens only after the sun goes down.
flower can't bloom during the day because the sun would burn the
flower," said Robert Schueller, a produce expert at Melissa's, a
California-based distributor that has played an instrumental role in
raising dragon fruit awareness - even to the point of encouraging
farmers to grow it - in the United States. "It pops out at night. It
blooms to the full moon. If the flower does not get pollinated, the
bloom will fall to the ground. And if the bloom falls to the ground, no
the continents where the cactus normally grows, bats and moths take
care of pollination duties, Mr. Schueller said. Farmers who grow dragon
fruit domestically - mostly in Southern California - have to go out into
the fields under a full moon and pollinate the flowers by hand.
easy to see why American farmers took their time and began cultivating
dragon fruit crops only a decade ago. And it's easy to see why a few
wound up backing out. "We ventured into it years ago, before it hit the
U.S., and dropped out of it for cost reasons," Margaret D'Arrigo-Martin,
an executive at D'Arrigo Brothers of California, a produce powerhouse,
said in an e-mail.
Department of Agriculture started allowing the fruit to be imported
from Vietnam - where most of them come from - in the summer of 2008. But
shipping them without squishing or spoiling them can be a challenge.
"It's a very sensitive fruit," Mr. Schueller said. That helps make it
expensive. "The large ones can go for anywhere from four to six dollars
apiece," he added.
through the aisles at Whole Foods, though, and it's clear that
Americans are keen on broadening their fruit spectrum. "When I was a
kid, you walked into an A&P market and you saw apples, oranges,
lemons, limes," said Mr. Conzonato, who is 42. "If there was a
pineapple, that was crazy. We were flavor settlers. Now we've kind of
changed our behavioral patterns. We're flavor nomads. We're much more
willing to explore."
Mr. Gardner was gearing up to create his cream liqueur, he studied the
momentum that had built around "superfruits" like açaí and pomegranate
and found himself asking, "What's the next hot fruit?" Because of his
travels in Asia, he knew of at least one promising contender - the
freaky-looking one with an easy-to-pronounce name and a
blooms-under-a-full-moon back story that seemed to have been dreamed up
by a screenwriter. (There also has been much flag-waving for dragon
fruit's alleged bounty of antioxidants, but "I haven't seen any
nutritional profiles that back that claim," Mr. Schueller said.)
hunters from Givaudan, the flavor-and-fragrance company, had been on
the same trail for a while. Jeff Peppet, Givaudan's head of marketing
communications for North America, remembers traveling in Vietnam on a
"taste trek" in 2002 and picking up a dragon fruit in Ho Chi Minh City.
The team subjected the fruit to what's known as a "headspace capture,"
using filters and tubes to pick up molecules of aroma and flavor that
"we take back to the lab for analysis," Mr. Peppet said.
herein lies what you might call the headspace catch: Sure, dragon fruit
may look glamorous, but the way it performs - on a plate or in a glass -
is open to debate. "It's interesting for me because the dragon fruit
doesn't have much flavor impact," said Derek Elefson, a marketing
specialist at Givaudan. "It's almost like a fantasy flavor - there is a
lot of room for interpretation."
In other words, the thing doesn't taste as wild as it looks.
the dragon fruit is so pretty, your expectations are a little different
when you bite into it for the first time," Mr. Schueller said. "You
think, ‘Wow, this thing is going to be really spectacular.' And it's
really mild." In some of the trendy drinks that emblazon the word
"dragon fruit" across the bottle, "you cannot taste dragon fruit in
there," he said.
fact, attempts to describe what it does taste like - depending on who's
doing the talking, it might be compared to a kiwi, a strawberry, a
pear, a melon or a litchi, or it might simply be pegged as "refreshing" -
suggest a conundrum at the core of the dragon fruit trend: What if the
blockbuster flavor of the moment isn't much of a flavor at all?
you've ever bitten into a dragon fruit, there's not that much going
on," said Meghann Seidner, a brand manager for Emergen-C, the
vitamin-supplement mix. "It's not that intense on its own." Dragon fruit
plays well with others, though, which helps explains why it's
accompanied by strawberry powder in the dragon-fruit-flavored Emergen-C
mix - and why customers often see it paired with other soft flavors that
help prop it up.
fruit is very subtle, very delicate," Mr. Andrés, the chef, said in an
e-mail. "So you want to be careful not to kill it with things that have
very strong flavor." In his fried quail dish at China Poblano, he
couples it with rose petals.
remains to be seen, naturally, whether dragon fruit has enough juice to
move beyond its niche status and grow into a box-office powerhouse. For
now, its fans probably ought to enjoy the warmth of the spotlight while
it lasts - there's always a new star around the corner, after all.
you ever heard of rambutan?" asked Mr. Conzonato of Skyy. "That's my
next obsession. That is a weird-looking fruit, and hugely delicious. I'm
going to convince somebody to let me do that vodka."