Unless you have travelled or lived in Central America, you will probably have never heard of the pitahaya, also known as ‘pitaya’ or ‘dragon fruit’. It is widely cultivated in countries such as Nicaragua where it is mainly used in making a popular natural juice with a distinctive beetroot-pink color. It is also grown in other Central American countries, in Mexico and Colombia, and in southeast Asia.
The pitahaya belongs to the cactus family and its name means ‘scaled fruit’ . Although the plant is grown in the Dominican Republic (where it also grows in the wild), the fruit is virtually unknown here. I have heard that there are some plans afoot to introduce it as a commercial crop, which came as welcome news to me. One of the highlights during my many visits to Central America was always the delicious pitaya juice I was offered everywhere I went.
When I first saw ‘dragon fruit’ on sale in European supermarkets several years ago, I was delighted, until I saw the price! Despite efforts to promote it as an export crop to Europe and North America, it appears that the unit cost is quite high and keeps it in the very expensive and exotic bracket, together with mango, papaya and passion fruit, all of which are cheap and abundant in their native countries. If it is being grown on a commercial scale here in the DR, I would guess that it has a better chance to succeed if it concentrates on the local market.
If you do happen to see this unusual looking fruit on sale, I recommend you give it a try. Pitaya fruits weigh about one pound on average. It is a striking hot pink color, with a spiny exterior. Cut it open to reveal the vivid fuscia-coloured pulp peppered with small black seeds, which is either scooped out with a spoon and eaten, or liquidized and strained to make the juice.
Pitahaya has other interesting qualities which make it an attractive commercial option. It can be used as a natural dye and a food coloring, as well as a raw material in the preparation of other foods such as jams, sweets and preserves. It is said to have therapeutic qualities and its use as a medicinal herb dates back to pre-Colombian times. Pitahaya is believed to help alleviate common stomach problems, and is also used by people with diabetes and endocrine problems.
Remember – you heard it here first!
- 2 dragon fruits
- 1 piece of ginger root
- 4 cinnamon sticks
- 12 allspice berries
- ½ cup of brown sugar
- 6 cups of water
- Peel the dragon fruit and cut into cubes or into balls using a melon baller. Be careful with splatter, the juice may leave stains.
- Cut the ginger into very thin slices (I used a potato peeler). You will only need 6 slices.
- In a deep-bottom pot mix ginger, cinnamon, allspice, sugar and water.
- Boil over medium temperature until the liquid has reduced to half.
- Remove the ginger and allspice and add the dragon fruit.
- Cook until the liquid has reduced to half.
- Chill before serving.