Following the consolidated success of avocado and mango, the tropical fruit sector has emerged as a fruitful alternative to traditional crops. Driven by the good reception of exotic, natural and healthy products, producers and traders increasingly bet on pitahaya or dragon fruit, a striking fruit that is gaining a lot of presence in southern agriculture.
Also known as pitayaAlthough this term can lead to confusion with another tropical fruit, dragon fruit seems to be taken from another era or from a fantasy or science fiction work, as it does not resemble any of the most common fruits in our markets. With its ovoid shape covered with strange pieces and a striking color, the pitahaya attracts by its exoticism and convinces by its refreshing taste, without forgetting its healthy properties.
Still little known among the general public, but increasingly present in greengrocers, markets and specialized stores, dragon fruit is called to be a product with the same prominence as mango or papaya, and that can offer many advantages to the sector agrarian.
Description and characteristics: what is it
Under the term pitahaya You can find references to the fruit of various species of American cactus, although today it is the most generic name of the one known as dragon fruit (dragon fruit). Specifically, it is the fruit of species of the genus Selenicereus (previously Hylocereus), of the Family of Cactaceae or cactus, as they are popularly known.
Said cactus is of the succulent type, of long stems with triangular profile on its outer surface and few spikes, with few initial branches and little thickness. Its friendly appearance and beautiful brightly colored flowers make it a highly prized plant for decorative purposes, and it usually needs firm vertical support to grow around it as it increases in size, and can reach several meters.
Of those flowers, hermaphrodites, very beautiful but of ephemeral existence and nocturnal glow, when they attract insects due to their intense aroma, the fruit develops, with a ovoid and also showing a very striking and peculiar coloring.
Due to its ovoid shape and thick skin of scaly appearance -literal translation of pitahaya in Haitian- it is known worldwide as dragon fruit. Although there are specimens only slightly larger than a chicken egg, it can exceed 10 cm in diameter, with a variable weight between 200 and 400 g.
From the greenish birth that initially joins it to the plant, the pitahaya grows and gets fatter as it turns yellow or a red or pink tone. The apparent scales of the bark develop clumps of thick, hard spines that increase their beauty but that make handling difficult, and must be removed before harvesting.
There are four varieties settled in the market for this fruit; red pitahaya with white pulp, red with red pulp, red with purple pulp, and yellow with white pulp.
Origin, cultivation and current production
It is a plant native to tropical and subtropical areas of America, where it was discovered for the first time by the Spanish conquerors. Also widespread as a traditional crop in areas of Asia, especially Vietnam and its surroundings, today it is a product established in many countries of the world that offer hot and dry climates.
Given the success of the production of tropical fruits in areas of the Iberian Peninsula such as the Axarquía of Malaga, numerous producers have ventured to explore the possibilities of the cultivation of this novel fruit, already produced successfully in the Canary Islands.
The dragon fruit cactus has the advantage that adapts very well to drought and practically all types of soils in the southern half of the peninsula, not necessarily requiring an exclusively tropical climate. Currently, the plantations in Huelva, Seville, Cádiz, Málaga, Almería, and, to a lesser extent, Córdoba, Badajoz and areas of the southeast such as Murcia or Alicante stand out.
Its low demand for water -two liters a week- and the rapidity of its growth, in addition to the fact that can be sown at any time, have turned it into a diamond in the rough for many farmers looking for alternative crops in the face of drought problems. In just two years since its plantation, it already offers fruits with very good market launch, not only as a fresh product, but also for cosmetic or food industry uses.
Nutritional properties and benefits
As a fruit, pitahaya has nutritional properties similar to other exotic varieties, apart from avocado. It is very rich in fiber and water, with low caloric content that does not exceed 100 kcal per 100 g of edible portion, being therefore a source of carbohydrates but with a very moderate energy intake.
Also as a fruit that it is, it has hardly any protein and its proportion of fats is minimal, standing out above all for being a great source of antioxidant vitamins and essential minerals. It is very rich in vitamin C and A, especially the red and purple-fleshed varieties, as well as in potassium and more moderate amounts of magnesium and calcium.
Its benefits include, therefore, its natural sweet flavor thanks to the sugars of the fruit, its help to hydrate the body and its satiating effect without being heavy, helping the proper functioning of the intestinal transit. The oligosaccharides present are resistant to the body’s digestion and have a prebiotic effect on the intestine, and the flavonoids have a protective antioxidant effect against various diseases.
Tips for buying and storing dragon fruit
Currently the pitayaha can be found in greengrocers, markets specialized in exotic fruits and even in large hypermarkets or supermarkets neighborhood, although it is still marketed in small quantities and at somewhat high prices, until its production and establishment in the market increases.
It is distributed fresh and ready ripening, ready to be consumed at the moment or to be kept at home for a few days, preferably unopened or covered, and in the least cold part of the refrigerator, avoiding contact with climacteric fruits that may affect their ripening.
The pulp can also be kept for one or two days in an airtight container, better if the oxygen is extracted with a short-term preservation system, or it can be frozen already peeled and cut.
The versatility of its cultivation means that we can find it practically all year, especially from late summer to the end of winter, since generally the fruits in Spain begin to be harvested from the month of July.
Uses and applications: how to use dragon fruit in the kitchen
The pulp of the dragon fruit in juicy, slightly gelatinous and stringy, full of small edible black seeds that provide a kiwi-like texture. It has a very fresh flavor, with its acid point but pleasant on the palate, thanks to the sweetness of its natural sugars, more pronounced in the more mature fruit.
To eat it, as it is usually distributed with the sharp scales cut out, you just have to wash it lightly under the tap and make a cut to split it in half and expose the pulp. Its edible meat can be consumed directly with a spoon, using the rind as a bowl -in the style of kiwi or grapefruit-, or also remove it with a spoon.
It is a perfect fruit for crush and prepare smoothies, smoothies or smoothie bowls with a tropical flavor, also used in exotic cocktails and in the preparation of sauces and creams for desserts or ice creams. Chopped It can be incorporated into fruit salads or salads, served with yogurt, or formed into skewers to dip in a molten chocolate fountain or grill.
Photos | iStock – Unsplash – Pixabay – Marco Verch
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