By Rizanino “Rice” Reyes
NORTH-WEST ASIA WEEKLY
The availability of unusual Asian fruits and vegetables has increased dramatically over the years and the demand seems to have never been higher.
Throughout the West Coast, more and more people are expanding their palettes as uncommon selections appear and become more accessible due to a growing demand for alternative food options brought on by a growing trend towards healthier eating. and general well-being – and for Asian communities, a renewed enthusiasm for enjoying ingredients and making dishes from their homeland as authentic as possible.
While many of these increasingly popular items are sourced and commercially produced in warmer climates, the high demand for local, organically grown fruits and vegetables has spurred interest from local farmers here in the western Washington, to grow them during the warmer months.
Tropical fruits have long been limited to a handful of regular favorites, such as bananas, pineapple, and the occasional papaya and mango at your local grocery store. But during the summer months, a diverse range of uncommon fruits can often be spotted.
Three closely related tropical fruits that you might come across and have probably been curious about are part of a very complex plant family that actually includes the Japanese maple. In an Asian grocery store, you might find bunches of fruit wrapped in a net-like bag. These are usually the tan-colored longan, the golf ball-sized lychee, and the oddly hairy rambutan.
Lychee succulent is similar in construction, but with a mild flavor reminiscent of a grape with floral notes. It appears during the hot summer months often coming from Central America. The rambutan fruit is similarly structured, but with a very distinct skin with prominent hairs. When opened, it almost looks like a roll-on lip balm. It has a firmer pulp consistency than its relatives, but a smooth, sweet grape flavor with perhaps a hint of strawberry and rose.
Almost all year long, you can find longan. Invented the name long-yen in Chinese which means “dragon’s eye”. The shell-like skin is pierced, revealing a very sweet, translucent fruit and a hard black seed.
Speaking of dragons, one of the most intriguing tropical fruits is the Pitaya, more commonly known as dragon fruit. Brightly colored, almost neon pink skin with green/yellow “scales”, it is grown extensively in many tropical regions and has become a popular ingredient in trendy fruit bowls and energy shakes. There are three main varieties you may come across: two look almost identical on the outside, but one is white-fleshed while the other is an almost iridescent bright pink. A smaller yellow variant is rarer and usually much smaller in size, but has white flesh and the best flavor of the three selections, as dragon fruit is generally sweet and almost bland, some say.
Rambutan is a staple food in tropical regions and enjoyed by many Asian cultures, especially in Vietnam, where it is called “chôm chôm”. Before, a small handful that we met at the grocery store seemed rotten, dead sea urchins with exaggerated pubescence are imported from Asia during the winter months and outrageously expensive. Now that they are grown in parts of Central America, cooler shipments of this intriguing fruit can be found in mid to late summer.
It was only a few years ago that jackfruit entered the mainstream, likely due to its use as a meat substitute when prepared in its unripe stage. Surprising to see unusual fruits such as fresh jackfruit (a close relative of the more well-known, but very fragrant delicate durian) has occasionally been spotted at Costco. The very sweet pulp takes a bit of work to extract and often requires a YouTube tutorial to prep those who haven’t undertaken what appears to be surgery trying to remove the edible parts.
It’s not just fruits that are causing a stir, but Asian vegetables are also becoming abundant and the sheer variety available can be overwhelming for those unfamiliar. However, the satisfaction of many customers from different cultures having access to certain leafy greens is still a sight to behold as it reminds so many of their homeland. Although nothing compares to the hustle and bustle of an open market with loud and noisy vendors promoting their grapes and the many customers haggling for the best price, you can still hear the excitement and the names of the dishes they can prepare with them.
While many of these vegetables are still imported, with the majority usually coming from California, specialty vegetables are starting to show up at local farmers’ markets and grocery stores as local farmers look to fill a unique niche.
Filipino and Hmong farmers in the northwest, most often associated with the extravagant flowers they offer, explore the possibilities of crops they often come to cultivate for themselves and their communities, but even home gardeners are discovering these selections more unusual and want them in their gardens and kitchens.
Asian eggplants have been selected to be longer, thinner and firmer compared to Italian selections which are more commonly offered. In fact, many gardeners find that they are easier to grow because they don’t have to get so tall. The firmer texture lends itself to being cooked over higher heat, such as stir-fries, and also to be used in soups and stews without falling apart.
A bundle of long bean strands is a must for a stew or stir-fry. Chinese long beans, or “sitaw” as they are known in the Philippines, require a long growing season, a sturdy trellis to climb in for the 24-inch pods to fully develop. Growing and harvesting it is labor intensive, but it is highly sought after. Seedlings are started indoors and get a head start before planting out in June when the weather has warmed.
At the same time seeds are sown for beans, bitter melon is also started indoors and has proven productive in the short Northwest summers. Despised by just about every Asian child who’s been forced to eat it and now adults who occasionally crave it, bitter melon, or “Ku Gua” in Chinese, looks like a cucumber in appearance, but is quite bitter, but supposedly good for blood circulation, regulating diabetes and lowering cholesterol.
While many of these fruits and vegetables can appear in grocery stores, by far the best selection can be found at major Asian markets such as Asian Family Center in North Seattle and Bellevue, Ranch 99 in Edmonds, Seafood City in Southcenter, Uwajimaya locations , Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (where there are several produce vendors scattered around the neighborhood), and Fou Lee Market in Seattle’s Beacon Hill. While many of these fruits can be found all year round, summer always gives the best selection.
Whether you grew up on these fruits and veggies or just want to explore the potential of your evolving palette, now is a great time to see what’s available to pick up and add to your next grocery list.