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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.

It's 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) Dragonfruitscoop 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 "Star Wars."

"The 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 Vegas.

The 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.

The 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."

Whatever 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."

Especially, 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?"

Dragonfruit and UsagesCultivated 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.

"The 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 fruit."

On 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.

It's 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.

The 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.

Stroll 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."

As 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.)

Taste 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.

But 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.

"Because 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.

In 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?

"If 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.

"Dragon 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.

It 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.

"Have 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."


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