If you like your fruit crunchy and juicy, pick up an Asian pear on your next visit to the produce section.
Plump and round as an apple with golden brown or pale yellow-green skin, a crisp, grainy texture and lightly sweet taste, these ancient pears are ready to eat when you buy them and make a refreshing snack straight from the fridge.
Asian pears are also just the thing to cure a persistent cough, according to two Danforth shopkeepers I spoke to from Guandong province. The Chinese remedy involves removing the pear’s core and stuffing the centre with rock sugar and medicinal ingredients such as goji berries and lotus seeds before steaming until tender. For maximum benefit, consume the fruit and its soup.
Though some Canadians are leery of buying fruit from China, the country’s food safety rules for pears and apples are stricter than some others, says Steve Tsai, manager at Monco Produce in Etobicoke. The Asian pear’s smooth, unmarked skin comes from placing a special paper bag over each fruit on the tree to keep out pests, including birds, and reduce the need for pesticides, Tsai says.
“Nobody else has the labour force to take such care of the fruit.”
A trip to T&T revealed a few of the many Asian pear varieties available in GTA stores throughout the year. Pulling back protective Styrofoam sleeves, I found pale, pear-shaped ya li, with its floral aroma and juicy texture, big apple-shaped golden pears and pricier brown nansui pears, available until July and considered the gold standard according to Tsai, who’s imported pears from China’s Shandong and Hebei provinces for more than 15 years.
“They started in the Asian market,” he says, “and now they’re also popular in Canadian stores.”
Tsai says Koreans love their brown pears served in cold noodle soup. The Japanese prize their crisp yellow nashi pear, while California grows more than 25 Asian varieties, many planted by Chinese prospectors during the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s.
Closer to home, Niagara-on-the-Lake grower John Thwaites planted his first acre of Asian pears eight years ago after watching the GTA’s Asian population soar. The demand for his brown pears in mid-October is now so strong that he paired up with the Ontario Tender Fruit Growers and the Greenbelt Foundation in 2016 to plant another 10 acres on high-density trellises, which will be ready to harvest in a few years.
“We saw an opening, but we still don’t know how big the market will be,” says Thwaites, adding his juicy home-grown Asians are sweeter and more flavourful than the Chinese pears he’s tasted, which can be rather bland.
But there’s no mistaking their crunch!
Buy and store
- Asian pears come in different shapes and sizes.
- The smooth pale yellow to gold-bronze skin may be sprinkled with spots.
- Avoid bruised fruit.
- Unlike European varieties, Asian pears ripen on the tree. They can be eaten immediately and remain firm and crunchy.
- Store in a plastic bag and refrigerate several weeks.
- Chill, wash and eat.
- The skin can be quite tough but it does contain fibre. Peeling is personal.
- Because they contain more water and take longer to cook than regular pears, Asian pears are usually eaten raw.
- Poaching and sautéing intensify the flavour while maintaining the pear’s firm texture.
- To serve, peel and slice crosswise to show off the star-shaped centre, especially in the nansui variety.
- Great for salads as they’re slow to turn brown. Slice paper-thin on a mandoline.
- Slice Asian pears into matchsticks and add to any green salad.
- Pair with bitter greens, blue cheese and nuts, especially almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts.
- Add crunch to a fruit salad.
- Dip peeled wedges in melted chocolate fondue infused with pear or orange liqueur. Include candied ginger coins for dipping.
- Add chunks to a stir-fry, use in a sweet and sour dish or add a little sweetness to Asian soups.
- Use in a marinade for barbecued Korean beef. Enzymes in the pear help tenderize meat.
- Toss thinly-sliced pear with celery and celery leaves, cilantro, lime juice, salt and pepper to top grilled chicken.
- Add diced pears to tuna tartare for a touch of crunch and sweetness.
- Juice them!
Sautéed Asian pears with hazelnuts
Adapted from author Elizabeth Schneider, serve warm pear slices with ice cream or go savoury and pair with ham or a grain salad. Brown nansui pears don’t need to be cored.
2 large Asian pears, peeled
3 tbsp butter
Pinch of salt
Squeeze of lemon juice
Coriander seeds or 1 tsp ground coriander
2 tbsp. coarsely chopped almonds or roasted, skinned hazelnuts (try bulk store!)
Halve pears lengthwise then cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices.
Heat butter in large skillet and fill with a single layer of pears. Cook over medium heat until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Turn and lightly brown second side, until pears lose their raw crunch. Sprinkle with salt and lemon juice to taste. Grind coriander in a coffee grinder or in a mortar and pestle and sprinkle on top. Transfer slices to a hot plate and cook remaining slices. Sprinkle with nuts and serve warm.
Makes 4 servings.