Also known as pitaya, pitahaya, huo long guo (literally translated as "fire dragon fruit"), long zhu guo (“dragon's pearl fruit"), strawberry pear, thanh long (in Vietnamese) and buah naga (in Bahasa Malaysia) the dragon fruit is the fruit of the Hylocereus, a species of climbing cactus. The Hylocereus undatus (Red Pitaya) has red-skinned fruit with white flesh, the Hylocereus polyrhizus (Costa Rica Pitaya) has red-skinned fruit with red flesh whilst the Selenicereus megalanthus (Yellow Pitaya) has yellow-skinned fruit with white flesh.
NUTRIENTS IN THE FRUIT
Dragon fruit is low in calories and provides numerous nutrients, including Vitamin C, phosphorus, iron and calcium, plus fibre, protein and antioxidants. It also contains traces of Vitamin A (carotene) as well as Vitamins B1, B2 and B3.
The red-purple pigment in the fruit is made up of anthocyanins which are natural antioxidants. Antioxidants neutralise free radicals to delay the body's ageing process and to strengthen the immune system. Lycopene, one of the anthocyanins commonly found in tomatoes is also present in the dragon fruit. Numerous studies have linked consistent intake of natural antioxidants with reduced incidence of cancer, cardiovascular disease and macular degeneration.
CULTIVATING THE DRAGON FRUIT
The dragon fruit is said to be native to Central and South America where the species were cross pollinated and had small fruits and low yield. Researchers from Taiwan then brought different native varieties to Taiwan and using traditional cultivating methods, carried out cross pollination and selection for many years, producing some good varieties. These varieties self-pollinate, produce high yield, are resistant to diseases and produce good quality fruits. In Malaysia, one such variety, CH68, is currently being mass-cultivated in Melaka due to the historical state's suitable soil conditions and climate. CH68 produces juicy fruits which are velvety and firm in texture with an attractive round shape.
The dragon fruit plant has fragrant, gigantic white flowers often measuring up to 12 inches in length and 10 inches in diameter. Sometimes called Moonflower or Queen of the Night, the flowers bloom only once in a month for one night.
About five thousand giant flowers per hectare will bloom in the night from 8pm until 9am the next morning. This aromatic, picturesque setting can only be found in a pitaya plantation which makes it a potential tourism spot, especially for flower lovers.
In Malaysia, where we have a tropical climate, fruits can be harvested throughout the year. The Costa Rica Pitaya and the Red Pitaya are the two varieties commonly cultivated. The red-fleshed Costa Rica Pitaya (in Malaysia, the red-fleshed variety is also called Red Pitaya) is more abundantly available as farmers have shifted to cultivating this variety due to its higher nutritional value. Farmers classify the fruits into XXL, XL, L and M according to weight, with a 100g range difference in each class. The XXL fruits are 600g and above, while the XL fruits weigh between 500g and 599g.
Some may find the fruit bland, which may be true for the white-fleshed variety but the crimson-fleshed dragon fruit is mostly sweet, with its sweetness comparable to the ripest and sweetest of honey dew melons. The comparison is drawn with the melon because the fleshes of both fruits are similar in texture, with the dragon fruit containing many tiny, crunchy seeds akin to sesame seeds. Both the varieties have fleshes that are juicy and refreshing to eat.
On the whole however, the red-fleshed dragon fruit is sweeter, juicier and has higher nutritional value than the white-fleshed fruit, which may explain the former's higher market price.
A simple and easy way to serve dragon fruit is to cut the fruit (with skin on) lengthwise into wedges. To serve without skin, cut fruit in half and peel off the skin, then slice flesh into smaller pieces or cut into cubes. The skin can also be used as an attractive serving container – scoop out the flesh, cut the flesh in desired manner and fill back into the dragon fruit shell.
Dragon fruit may be made into juice, jam or wine and the flowers can be eaten or steeped as tea. The pigments present in the dragon fruit offer natural colouring options for food and cosmetic products.
Dragon fruit can also be made into an enzyme drink that is gaining popularity as a health elixir. The enzyme syrup is produced from naturally fermenting the fruit. The enzymes contained in the syrup are touted to help improve digestion of foods and aid in detoxifying the body. It is believed that producing enzymes is one of the best ways to maintain the nutrients of the fruit as the fermentation process also ensures that all the nutrients remain intact.