Don't let the name frighten you; there's nothing scary about dragon fruit. Oh sure, they might look a little different. Their peel can be bright pink or yellow depending on the variety, and they're covered with what look like prickly scales, hence the name. But once you slice into a ripe dragon fruit, it's all good.
A cross section slice of dragon fruit is nature at its most visually interesting. Dragon fruit flesh is either white or magenta and is flecked with tiny black seeds. And its taste? Well it's like a cross between a kiwi and a pear.
Where Does Dragon Fruit Come From?
Though dragon fruit is grown in tropical and subtropical areas throughout the world today, it wasn't always that way. The fruit is a member of the climbing cactus family (Cactaceae) and was probably indigenous to Central America, Mexico and northern South America where it was known as pitahaya or pitaya.
Dragon fruit grows as a climbing cactus and requires support to grow properly. The growing season takes place during the hot summer months and into early fall. Blooms typically occur between July and October, and plants are nocturnal bloomers, meaning they show off their blooms only at night. Once the plant flowers, fruit begins to form. Plants are productive for up to 30 years.
French explorers are believed to have taken dragon fruit from Central America to Southeast Asia, specifically Vietnam, in the 1800s. From there, dragon fruit production spread throughout Asia. Today it is commercially produced in Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, China, Israel and countries in Central America.
Vietnam is the world's leading producer of dragon fruit and it is the country's leading fruit export. Eighty percent of the dragon fruit produced in Vietnam is exported to China with demand increasing. Why? In addition to the health benefits of dragon fruit, many Chinese consumers believe the fruit is lucky or culturally significant, especially around Chinese New Year.
Shopping for Dragon Fruit
Dragon fruit used to be found only in Asian markets, but not anymore. Depending on where you live, you might find dragon fruit in your local Costco, neighborhood grocery store or farmers market. The fact that it's imported — and in high demand — has driven up the price of this exotic fruit. You can expect to pay between $5 or $10 apiece (or more!) depending on where you live.
We talked to Anupy Singla, a Chicago-based cookbook author, journalist and recipe developer about what to look for when shopping for dragon fruit.
"Look for brightness of color and firm to the touch so it can continue to ripen and get a little soft for you, and you'll have a little time to dig in and enjoy it," she says. "You don't want it to get to the point where it's mushy. They need to look fresh."
The peel shouldn't look withered and look for any obvious bruising or wilting of the leaves. Dragon fruit will keep at room temperature for a few days or you can store them in your fridge. But don't cut the fruit until you're ready to eat. Once it's cut, it will need to be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container.
To prepare the dragon fruit, simply slice it down the center and pull away the peel. "Because it's thick and waxy it's super easy to peel away," Singla says. "Then I'll slice it and drizzle some honey over it to eat it fresh. You can always scoop it out and eat it that way, too. My kids eat it that way with a spoon."
Singla created a dragon fruit smoothie recipe that uses coconut milk, and recently made something she calls "chaat."
"It's a small plate — a tiny salad," she says. "I combine the dragon fruit with the Indian spice chaat masala, and put in red onion and Vietnamese red chilis, to add heat and some lime juice. It is so good. You can pair it with fish or any kind of protein, or even plain on salad. What I love about it, when you talk about the nutritionals, is the level of fiber in a dragon fruit, they are second only to raspberries (the highest in fiber)."
Health Benefits of Dragon Fruit
So, let's talk about the nutrition in these fruits. Six ounces of dragon fruit will typically net:
- 102 calories
- 0 grams fat
- 2 grams protein
- 22 grams carbohydrates
- 13 grams sugars
- 5 to 7 grams fiber
Dragon fruit makes a great snack because it's naturally low in sugar, fat free and, because it's high in fiber, will help you feel full for longer. It's also a good source of several essential vitamins and minerals including magnesium, iron and vitamins A and C.
Singla says dragon fruit is great for people who are looking to add something different and healthy to their diet.
"Once you get over the appearance, it is so easy to work with and easy to eat fresh without any real prep to it," she adds. "It's an easy source of fiber, vitamin C and all these other things and I love that you can get vitamin C from something other than a grapefruit or orange. The key is just to realize that there are different options that are just as tasty as the ones you're used to."