Dragons at Night

Health benefits of the hot pink, armor-plated dragonfruit
By Adam Swenson

In Thailand, a moonflower blooms after dark, sprouting from the arms of a tall, thin cactus of the genus Hylocereus. It will bloom only for one night. If the flower becomes pollinated, a bizarre looking, distinctly tropical pink fruit will grow. The interior of this fruit will be either white or red and full of seeds—like a kiwi, but more so. The common English term for it takes a cue from the Asian vernacular, including the Khmer name sror kaa neak (translated as dragon scale) or the Thai name kaeo mangkon (translated as dragon crystal). One look at the fruit and it is easy to see why—the bright exterior has what appear to be miniature pink armor plates. Or, if you’re so inclined, dragon scales.

This is the strange and delicious world of the dragonfruit.

Sweet and sour

Dragonfruit come in a variety of different cultivars, with the corre­sponding variations on taste. Sour pitayas (another name for dragonfruit) are common in the arid regions of the Americas. The sour pitaya has long been an important food source for Native Americans living in the Sonoran Desert, and for the Seri people of Northwest Mexico, whose word for it translates to “thing whose fruit is sour.”

If you run across dragonfruit in your local market, you’re more likely to come across the sweet varieties, and there are three: White-fleshed pitaya has a red (or pink) skin and a white flesh. This is the most common variety. Red-fleshed pitaya has a red-skinned fruit with red flesh. Zach Adelman, president and founder of Navitas Naturals, chose to go with red-fleshed pitaya grown organi­cally in Thailand when they introduced their dragonfruit slices to the market. “The flavor is a cross between a kiwifruit and a melon,” Adelman said. “We use the red variety of the fruit, which has far sweeter flavor than the typical yellow/white variety. I love the unique texture of our slices—it is chewy like a dried fruit leather, but melts in your mouth at the same time. Some dragonfruit can be thought to have a very mild and somewhat bland flavor, but that’s related to the white/yellow variety that is common as a fresh fruit in Asian food markets. People are pleasantly surprised when they try our red dragonfruit, which is much more flavorful.”

The third variety, yellow pitaya, has yellow-skinned fruit with white flesh.

Nutrition

So what is it that makes the dragonfruit worthy of the superfood title? Broadly defined, a superfood is anything that is relatively low in calories and conveys outstanding nutritional benefits that boost our health in some fashion that surpasses the average produce aisle offering. By this measure the dragon­fruit certainly succeeds—a single small dragonfruit only has 60 calories and is full of good-for-you vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

One unique aspect of the dragonfruit is that it provides 2 grams of protein per serving and omega-3s, both of which are rare among fruits. Adelman says the protein and fat content comes from the seeds that are found throughout the flesh of the fruit. In addition to the protein and omega-3s, the seeds contribute a good supply of fiber to help with digestion.

Dragonfruit offers an abundance of essential vitamins including C, B1, and B3, as well as key minerals including iron, magnesium, and phosphorus. Along with that come antioxidants like betacyanins, complex phytoalbumins, and lycopene. Antioxidants are something we should all be focused on getting in our diet these days as they help fight systemic inflammation, which is public enemy No. 1 when it comes to causes of chronic disease. And indeed, a recent study of the antioxidant properties of dragon­fruit found that regular consumption may reduce the risk of developing heart disease and high blood pressure.

How to eat it

Eating the raw dragonfruit is a fun and interesting challenge. (Tracking them down might also be an interesting challenge—Asian markets are a good bet.) One simple way to do it is to cut the fruit in half lengthwise and scoop out the flesh with a spoon, much the way you would eat an avocado.

Or you can cut the fruit lengthwise, then make cubes by cutting vertical and horizontal lines in the flesh, going down to the skin but not through it. You can then push on the back of the skin of the fruit and it will push inside out, exposing all those cubes of dragonfruit, which you can then just remove with your fingers.

If you would rather try it as a dried fruit, Navitas Naturals dragonfruit slices are excellent. I found the slices to be very flavorful, and the seeds give it a pleasant and intriguing texture. Adelman says the “fibrous sweet pulp [of the fruit] is carefully removed in cross section slices that are then partially dried out in the sun at low temperatures. We try to minimally handle and dry our products to protect the quality of their raw nutrients.”

The slices are great right out of the bag as a snack or they can be added to salads or put to whatever other culinary ends your mind can dream up.

History

The hylocereus cacti originally hailed from Mexico and from there spread to South America. It now grows in many countries in East and Southeast Asia as well as Japan, Israel, Australia, China, Cyprus, and the US (in Hawaii, California, and other warm states).

The dragonfruit’s range is determined in large part by growing conditions—it fares best in dry tropical climates. Too much rain leads to flower drop and fruit rot. It can handle very brief frosts as well as temperatures up to 100 or so. New plants are grown from stem cuttings, and each plant can have between four and six fruiting cycles in a year.

Beautiful on the inside

So this fruit was pollinated in the heat of a tropical night under questionable circumstances. And granted, its neon green leaves protruding from the pink shell look like the phosphorescent doodlings of a surrealist. But cut all that open and inside you’ll find some sweetness, antioxidants, and omega-3s. (Look hard and you might even find a metaphor in there somewhere.)