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 colour. It is also grown in other Central American countries, in Mexico and Colombia, and in south east 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 pitahaya 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. Pitahaya fruits weigh about 1lb on average. It is a striking hot pink colour, 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 liquidised 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 colouring, 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 endocrinic problems.
Remember – you heard it here first!
Fruits in light syrup are very popular in the Dominican Rep. This one combines the beautiful dragon fruit with a hint of spiciness from the ginger.
- 2 dragon fruits
- 1 piece of ginger root
- 1/2 cup of brown sugar
- 12 allspice berries
- 4 cinnamon sticks
- 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 6 cups of 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.