Dragon fruit, or pitaya, is one of the most alluring tropical fruits around, at least on a surface level. It has a bad-ass name, obviously, and a striking appearance—akin to a bright pink egg with green scale-like appendages, or maybe an alien artichoke. Cut it open and it may have vivid magenta flesh, or creamy white, but either way, it’s speckled with little black seeds (like the ones in a kiwi) for even more visual interest and textural appeal. But while dragon fruit is definitely a drama queen in the looks department, it’s something of a shrinking violet when it comes to flavor.
Its bold appearance might spark expectations of an equally punchy flavor, but in fact, it’s quite subtle, and even a little bland by comparison to other warm-climate fruit like mangoes and pineapples. Whether you pick a pink- or white-fleshed variety, the fruit will be only lightly sweet, similar to a pear or unripe melon, with a cucumber-esque freshness, and little to no tartness. The texture is crunchy yet somewhat juicy. There is also a smaller, yellow-skinned, white-fleshed version of dragon fruit that you might find, although the pink ones seem to be more common; they all taste pretty much the same, with individual fruits’ sweetness varying depending on where and when they were grown, and how ripe they are. The pink-fleshed fruits tend to be a bit more interesting, with a sweeter and slightly more intense taste, but from the outside, it’s impossible to know if that’s what you’re getting (unless the vendor tells you).
The natural growing season for dragon fruit starts in midsummer and goes through early fall, but modern agricultural practices mean you can find it pretty much year round. It’s the fruit of a climbing cactus (making it related to prickly pears), native to Mexico and South America, but it’s now grown in many other tropical locales, including various Southeast Asian countries and Australia. The feathery white firework-burst flowers of the plant bloom during the dark of night, and wither in the sun the very next day. During that brief window of mostly nocturnal existence, they’re pollinated by bats and moths (as well as bees). The resulting fruit that develops at the base of the wilted flower grows to full size in about a month.
When choosing dragon fruit, which is available at many large grocery stores as well as Asian markets (and local farmer’s markets if you’re lucky), look for a bright, even color and a minimum of blemishes, “scales” that are still relatively fresh (not totally dry and brown), and stay away from overly dry and shriveled stems. When you press the fruit gently with your fingers, it should have a little give, without being mushy. If the fruit is still hard, you can leave it on the counter for a few days until it softens up a bit. (You can also look for packets of frozen dragon fruit, which is a good way to ensure you get the brightly colored fuchsia flesh if that’s what you’re after, and you can purchase freeze-dried pitaya powder too.)
While dragon fruit might not have much inherent flavor, it is said to be extremely healthy, high in vitamin C and antioxidants among other beneficial substances, and the red-fleshed variety certainly makes for stunning drinks and smoothie bowls. No wonder Starbucks recently debuted a dragon fruit drink for summer.
If you want to use dragon fruit at home, it’s easy to prepare. For a light, refreshing snack, you can simply cut it in half lengthwise and use a spoon to eat the flesh straight from the peel, or if you want to use it in a dish, remove the flesh from the outer shell by running the edge of a spoon between the meat and the skin (like you would with an avocado). Turn the pieces of fruit over to check the rounded sides for any remaining skin and trim that off, then slice, dice, or puree the flesh as you see fit. For a fancier presentation, you can use a melon baller to scoop out perfect spheres of dragon fruit—and feel free to reserve the brightly colored shells to use as serving vessels. Alternatively, cut the fruit into smaller slices or chunks first, and then cut off the peel.
Because the flavor of dragon fruit is so mild and delicate, it pairs well with white fish (especially meatier varieties like mahi mahi, which contrast nicely with the texture of the fruit), and since it’s juicy and crunchy, it makes a great addition to fruit salads and salsas. You can use it in smoothies, drinks, and sorbets as well; if you find pink-fleshed fruit, the results are especially striking, but the taste will be much the same either way. Although there are exceptions to the general rule (like this cod with dragon fruit gastrique), dragon fruit isn’t usually cooked, but prepared and eaten raw, to retain its rather fragile flavor and texture.
Here are some ideas on how to use dragon fruit in your own kitchen.
For a more substantial breakfast that’s still pretty healthy, these coconut pancakes with a pineapple-pitaya topping fit the bill (and you can make the fruity syrup substitute to drizzle over any pancake or waffle recipe you may prefer). Get the recipe.
For a more vibrant color, use pureed dragon fruit in the frosting, but a little bit of powdered pitaya lends a fetching blush. Try adding some to any vanilla icing recipe for a pink tint to top all your baked goods, not just these vegan and gluten-free doughnuts. Get the recipe.
Fresh, crisp vegetables rolled up in translucent rice paper are a fantastic summer snack or appetizer, and dragon fruit (purple or white) is a great addition. Here, the fruit is actually pureed to naturally dye the rice noodles in the filling, but crisp slivers of pitaya would also work wonderfully in the mix. Get the recipe.
Add cubes or spheres of dragon fruit to your favorite fruit salad for delicate crunch and gentle sweetness. A little lime juice beautifully offsets the natural sugars in any combo of ripe fruit you choose. Get the recipe.
For a creamier frozen treat, try this pitaya ice pop with coconut milk, but for an extra-light dessert, pure fruit puree mixed with simple syrup can’t be beat. (For a more vibrant color, seek out magenta-fleshed dragon fruit for the pops.) Get the recipe.
Rotate this dragon fruit drink into your repertoire of fruity cocktails and you’ll be sipping pretty all summer long. Here, the pitaya mingles with vanilla and mint for an updated take on the mojito, with agave syrup as the sweetener. Get the recipe.
Header image courtesy of Myrosha / Shutterstock.