By Rizanino “Riz” Reyes
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The availability of unusual Asian fruits and vegetables has grown considerably over the years and the demand for them appears to be at an all-time high.
All along the West Coast, more and more people are expanding their palettes as uncommon selections are popping up and becoming more accessible due to a growing demand for alternative food options brought upon by an increasing trend towards healthier eating and overall wellness—and for the Asian communities, a renewed enthusiasm to enjoy ingredients and prepare dishes from their homeland as authentic as they can make it.
While most of these increasingly popular items originated and are commercially produced in warmer climates, the heavy demand for local, organically grown fruits and vegetables has boosted interest from local farmers here in Western Washington to grow them during the warmest months.
Tropical fruits have long been limited to a handful of regular favorites, such as bananas, pineapples, 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 you might encounter and have probably been curious about are members of a very complex plant family that actually includes the Japanese Maple. At an Asian grocery store, you might find clusters of fruits wrapped in a net-like bag. These are usually the tan-colored longan, the golf-ball sized lychee, and the bizarrely hairy rambutan.
The luscious lychee is similar in construction, but with a mild flavor reminiscent of a grape with floral notes. It appears in the warm summer months often coming in from Central America. The rambutan fruit is structured the same way, but with a very distinct skin with prominent hairs. Once opened, it almost resembles a roll-on lip-balm. It has a firmer pulp consistency than its relatives, but a sweet, mild, grape-like flavor with maybe a hint of strawberry and rose.
Almost year round, we can find longan. Coined the name long-yen in Chinese meaning “dragon’s eye.” The shell-like skin is pierced open 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 farmed 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 encounter: two look almost identical on the outside, but one is white fleshed while the other a vibrant almost iridescent pink. A smaller yellow variant is more uncommon and typically much smaller in size, but has white flesh and the best flavor of all three selections as dragon fruit is typically mild and almost bland in flavor, according to some.
Rambutan is a staple in tropical regions and beloved by many Asian cultures especially in Vietnam, where it’s called “chôm chôm.” Before, a small handful one would encounter at the grocery store looked rotted, dead sea-urchins with their exaggerated pubescence are imported from Asia during the winter months and outrageously expensive. Now that they’re being grown in parts of Central America, fresher shipments of this intriguing fruit can be found in mid-late summer.
Just a few years ago, jackfruit entered the mainstream, most likely due to its use as a meat substitute when prepared at its unripe stage. Surprising to see unusual fruits such as fresh jackfruit (a close relative to the more well-known, but very strong-smelling delicacy durian) has sometimes been spotted in Costco. The very sweet pulp is a bit of work to extract and often requires a YouTube tutorial to prepare those who have not taken on what appears to be a surgical procedure trying to remove the edible portions.
It’s not just the fruits causing the stir, but Asian vegetables are also becoming plentiful and the vast variety available can be overwhelming to those not familiar. However, the satisfaction of many customers from various cultures having access to certain leafy greens is always a sight to see as it reminds so many people of their homeland. While nothing compares to being in the hustle and bustle of an open market with loud, boisterous vendors promoting their bunches and the many customers haggling for the best price, you can still hear the excitement and the names of dishes they can prepare with them.
While many of these vegetables are still imported, the majority usually coming from California, specialty vegetables are beginning to pop up in local farmer’s markets and grocery stores as local farmers are looking to fill a unique niche.
Filipino and Hmong farmers in the Northwest, more often associated with the extravagant flowers they offer, are exploring the possibilities of crops they’ve often just grown for themselves and their communities, but even home gardeners are discovering these more unusual selections and are wanting them in their gardens and kitchens.
Asian eggplants have been selected to be longer, skinnier, and firmer compared to the Italian selections that are more commonly offered. In fact, many gardeners are discovering that these are easier to grow because they don’t have to get so large. The firmer texture lends itself to being cooked in higher heat, such as stir-fry, and also being used in soups and stews without it falling apart.
A bundle of long strands of beans is a must for a stew or stir-fry. The Chinese long beans, or “sitaw” as it’s called in the Philippines, requires a long growing season, a sturdy trellis in which to climb so the 24-inch pods can fully develop. It is very labor intensive to grow and harvest, but it is so 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, the seeds are sown for the beans, the bitter melon is also started indoors and has proven productive in the short Northwest summers. Despised by just about every Asian child who was forced to eat and now adults who occasionally will crave it, the bitter melon, or “Ku Gua” in Chinese, is similar in appearance to a cucumber, but it is quite bitter, but supposedly good for blood circulation, regulating diabetes, and reducing cholesterol.
While many of these fruits and vegetables can surface at grocery stores, by far the best selection can be found at larger 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 year round, summer always yields the best selection.
Whether you grew up with these fruits and vegetables or simply want to explore the potential of your evolving palette, now is a great time to see what’s available to pick up and add on to your next grocery list.