Inside the red dragon

dragonfruit salad When Montreal journalist Adam Leith Gollner held a cocktail party one slushy February, he asked everyone to bring a fruit they’d never tasted before.

One guest arrived with a Vietnamese dragon fruit.

“The size of an ostrich egg, it’s winged with flaming orange-green flaps,” Gollner writes in his terrific book The Fruit Hunters, now a film, about a band of adventurers who travel the world seeking unusual fruits.

If you’re not heading south this winter, but crave a little tropical sunshine, look for this curious beast in the exotic fruit section of your local supermarket.

Zipped into a leathery hot pink skin and still perky despite chilling out on a cargo ship for nearly a month before being whisked to T.O., dragon fruit is impossible to miss.

Cut in half, it reveals crisp white flesh dotted with black seeds.

“The texture is akin to watermelon, the seeds as inconspicuous as a kiwi’s,” Gollner writes. “The delicate flavour is vaguely reminiscent of strawberries and concord grapes.”

At Longo’s, the flavour is described as a cross between pear and kiwi. Aficionados also detect a hint of melon.

At Sunny FoodMart, marketing consultant Yong Li describes this increasingly popular fruit as having “a gentle fresh taste.”

Bottom line, the dragon fruit may be delicate of flavour, but it’s also wonderfully refreshing, easy to prepare and adds bling to a fruit salad or fruit platter.

Once you’ve tamed the red dragon, check out its yellow sibling. Shaped like a small golden pine cone, it’s “off the charts” in terms of sweetness, notes Jennifer Daniel, a Loblaws produce merchant based in Kitchener.

We both agree it’s our favourite, and worth hunting for.

Now, about that party: what will you bring?

Family Ties:

Dragon fruit, also called pitaya or pitahaya, is a species of cactus with messy overflowing branches, similar to dragon wings. It’s available year-round and beloved throughout Southeast Asia, in Mexico and in Central and South America.

Of the three varieties, red with white flesh is the most common. Some say the red dragon with deep purple flesh is tastier, but Daniel says she didn’t find much difference. The rare yellow pitahaya is smaller, with juicy white flesh. Longo’s flies it in from Colombia within 24 hours of harvesting, reflected in its quality and price.

•Look for a plump red or yellow dragon with bright, even-coloured skin and fresh-looking tips. The fruit should give a little, but you don’t want it too soft.

•Keep it on the counter and eat in a day or two or refrigerate 3 to 5 days. I rescued one from my fridge recently looking pretty brown and withered, but the flesh inside was still sweet and firm.

•Daniel says her 10-year-old daughter loves taking chunks to school for lunch.

•Dragon fruit is ideal for fruit salad because it holds its shape well when cut into cubes or scooped into balls with a melon baller.

•Serve cold with a squeeze of lime juice to bring out its flavour.

•Cut the fruit in half lengthwise and gently separate the flesh from the skin with a soup spoon or with your fingers. Lift the fruit out of the skin in one piece and place flat on a cutting board. Cut off any pink skin still attached. Slice the flesh crosswise, then lengthwise into cubes.

•Clean out the shell and use as an individual serving bowl.

•With its high water content, dragon fruit blends easily into smoothies, even martinis.

•Toss chunks in a fruit salad with other tropical fruits, or into a chicken salad.

•Purée dragon fruit flesh, combine with sugar and lemon juice and freeze into sorbet.

•Thread cubes of mango and dragon fruit alternately onto wooden skewers and cook in a grill pan 2 minutes, until lightly browned.

•To make a spectacular garnish for cocktails or lemonade, lop off the tips and cut crosswise into thin rounds, keeping the pink (or yellow) skin intact.

Dragon Fruit Salad
Ginger-Lime Dressing:
¼ cup (60 mL) sugar
¼ cup (60 mL) water
6 coins fresh unpeeled ginger, ¼-inch (.5 cm) thick
3 tbsp (45 mL) fresh lime juice
1 tsp (5 mL) lime zest

2 red dragon fruit
1 mango, cubed
2 green kiwi fruit, peeled and sliced
2 cups (500 mL) strawberries, halved or quartered

Bring sugar and water to boil in a small saucepan on medium heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add ginger and simmer over low heat 10 mins, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and let syrup cool completely. Discard ginger and stir in lime juice and zest. Set aside.

Remove dragon fruit flesh from shells and cube. Clean and reserve shells. Toss fruit in a bowl with cut mango, kiwi and strawberries. Add enough dressing to moisten and toss again. Refrigerate 1 hour to blend flavours. Divide among the reserved shells.
Serves 4.

Published Feb. 22, 2013 in the Toronto Star.


  1. The dragon fruit isn’t even remotely Asian. It’s a cactus fruit and is native to Mexico. Like chillis, tomatoes and potatoes, there are no cacti native to anywhere outside the Americas.

    • Thanks for your note, Anthony. I guess that’s why it’s much-loved in Mexico! I’ve only seen it growing in Malaysia. Perhaps if demand grows in Canada the Mexicans will start exporting it here, which would be great!

  2. Dear Cynthia,

    Lovely piece on the dragon fruit. But another fruit makes me think of you. A few years back you helped me find the pr firm that promoted Florida grapefruit, orange and grapefruit juice. Last year, for Mad for Marmalade, the event at Fort York, Golin Harris provided a grapefruit for everyone, some extras for gifts and promotional material. This year, they upped their contribution to a beautiful bright pink goodie bag containing a grapefruit, a little citrus soap, some citrus tea and a truffle, along with promotional material. They came to the site and made up the bags. As well they sponsored juice for the event (100 people) and a demonstration by Emily Richards who made 3 different grapefruit and orange dishes. All together this was a very generous contribution to the day, and much appreciated by the audience. But my thanks go to you who made the link. Thanks a whole lot.


    • Thanks Elizabeth. Sounds amazing, wish I’d been there! Our pal Ken Berger is now representing Texas grapefruit so perhaps you can get some competition going next year! Jennifer Bain bought a red dragon fruit yesterday and said it had zero flavour … so sad! Keep your eyes peeled for the yellow one, though it may cost you $6 to try one. xcy

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