Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Asian Pears

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When I moved to New York City in the 1980s, a whole world of food opened up to me. I ate things I had never seen, things I couldn't pronounce. There were new discoveries at every turn, even at my corner deli. Like many such establishments, it was owned by an Asian family and carried items that reflected that heritage, including a parade of produce that to my uncultured eyes looked like something from Dr. Seuss' kitchen. Leathery lychees and furry rambutans, thorny bitter melon, embalmed fingers of ginseng on the counter. Some of it was just too intimidating. But the perfume of a stack of Asian pears was irresistible. After my first sample, I was hooked. And I began to request them at the grocery. But no one in the corner grocery, D'Agostino's, had heard of Asian pears. I found a vaguely similar looking thing in the upscale Balducci's, but it was called an Apple Pear so I moved on (the high price of exotic fruit on my limited college allowance did not leave much room for guessing). It took a long time for me to discover that Asian pears and apple pears are the same fruit but I was probably looking at two very different varieties (as different as a Granny Smith is to a Red Delicious apple) and even longer for the fruit to become popular enough to pick up at markets that didn't specialize in Asian produce. They are still one of my favorites and maybe soon one of yours, too.

A Brief History of Asian Pears

Asian pears are native to Japan and China where they have been grown for over three thousand years. While their flavor and appearance may be reminiscent of European pears, Asian pears developed from a different species. Asian pears can be divided into two groups. Japanese (also called Nashi) are better adapted to warm climates. They have a round and flattened shape with russeted skin and sweet, juicy flesh. Chinese varieties (called Li) are more cold hardy. They have more of the European pear shape, tapered at the top, which leads food historians to question whether there was some undocumented hybridization between Asian and European varieties ages ago.

The first Asian pears landed in North America in Queens in 1820. They were originally appreciated as ornamental plants but eventually found added value for their ability to resist fire blight disease, a common threat to the established European pear crops. Asian pears were hybridized with the more traditional pears to create varieties that were more disease resistant.

The biggest influx of Asian pears in the states came later in the century on the West Coast, where Asian immigrants immigrated during the Gold Rush. Initially, the fruit existed mainly in the domain of the home gardens of Asian immigrants. European settlers who were accustomed to the melting texture of ripe European pears shunned them.

It wasn't until the 1980s that Asian pears began to pick up some traction in the marketplace. Eaters love their unique texture and delicate flavor. The fruit, however, needs to be hand-tended, which keeps them from reaching the commercial volumes of their European counterparts.

Factual Nibbles

  • Asian pears go by a number of misleading names, including the apple pear, which leads eaters to mistakenly believe the fruits are a cross between apples and pears; salad pear, which inadvertently limits the delight to a single course; and sand pear, an unappetizing reference to the "stone cells" that cause the flesh to have a pleasingly gritty texture.
  • During the Edo period in Japan, pears were believed to ward off evil and misfortune and were often planted near gates and in the corner of properties for protection.
  • The record yield for a single Asian pear tree is three tons of edible fruit.
  • Asian pear trees can produce so much fruit that the weight of it snaps the limbs from the tree.

Asian Pear Cultivation

In addition to being grown in Asia (Japan, China and Korea), Asian pears thrive in Italy, Spain, Australia, France, Chile and New Zealand. In the United States the bulk of commercial production comes from California and Oregon with a smaller supply coming out of Washington State, Kentucky and Alabama.

There are over twenty-five varieties grown in California and thousands in Asia. "20th Century" (Nijisseki) was first grown in Japan in 1900 and is the most popular variety there and in California. "Ya Li" is the most important variety grown in China where it is valued for its sweet, mild flavor.

Asian pear cultivars are propagated by grafting scions onto suitable rootstocks or can be grown from seed, though the fruit will not have the characteristics of its parent seed.

Cross pollination increases yield so the trees are planted next to neighboring varieties, even next to European pears. Growers must be careful, though, to plant varieties that fruit at the same time or the flowers will miss their chance to mingle. 

The trees take several years to bear fruit and ten to fourteen years to reach full maturity. Once they are established, Asian pear trees bear for a long time. In Asia, trees up to three hundred years old are not unknown. Older trees can grow to be very large, up to fifty feet high. Trees bear bountifully. Many, on average, will yield four hundred pounds of fruit annually.

Once the trees fruit, they must be aggressively thinned or the pears will be too small to bring to market. The majority of Asian pears are harvested in California from mid-July through September but can extend before or after that time frame with early and late blooming varieties.

Environmental Impact of Growing Asian Pears

Orchard fruits of all types are susceptible to pest infestation. Their sweet taste and heady fragrance makes them just as attractive to bugs as they are to humans. Unlike field crops, trees can't be rotated to break an infestation pattern. So, often topical treatments must be applied. The same is true of disease. Chemical "thinners" have been applied to trees to diminish the number of fruits produced and increase the fruit size of the remaining yield. While the Environmental Working Group has just added pears to its Dirty Dozen list of most contaminated produce items, it did not single out Asian pears as part of this group.

Asian Pear Characteristics

The texture and flavor of Asian pears does not improve after picking. Unlike European pears, which are best eaten when they begin to soften, Asian pears are enjoyed while they are still firm. They have a crunch that is as audible as an apple but much juicier. Their somewhat speckled skin is usually golden in color, but can be tinged with green, brown or yellow hues. The skin may be smooth or russetted with a fine web-like texture.

Asian pears bruise easily, so you want to look for those that have been carefully handled. Often, they will be displayed in net protectors or, in a more environmentally sensitive arrangement, in a recyclable carton separated like eggs. The fruit is so easily damaged that it is often packed directly in the field rather than being transferred to a large packing house.

Asian Pear Nutrition 

Asian pears are an excellent source of dietary fiber, particularly if you eat the skin. They are a good source of potassium, Vitamin K, copper and Vitamin C. Traditional Chinese Medicine lists Asian pears as a cure for coughs and bronchial ailments. Some believe that eating Asian pears or drinking their juice before a night out will mitigate any day-after effects of alcohol.

What to Do with Asian Pears and How to Cook Them 

While you can cook Asian pears, part of their delight is in their crisp texture and quenching nectar, both of which are lost on the heat of the stove. Here are some ideas:

Asian pear juice is often used in Korean BBQ marinades.

They bring light and delicate crunch to poke.

You can serve Asian pears on a cheese platter. Their sweet flavor pairs really well with blue cheese or the nutty/butterscotch flavor of aged gouda.

Thin slices go really well on sandwiches.

You can add them to salads.

Asian pears make an exotic tasting fruit salad.
Pickle Asian pears to capture their crunch.

Can them to make your Asian pears last until the next season.

Storing Fresh Asian Pears

Asian pears keep very well. They can be held in cold storage for several months. At room temperature, Asian pears will last two to three weeks before losing their crunchy texture. 

Recipe: Asian Pear Slaw

Serves 4

Slaws make the best side dishes for entertaining. Unlike leafy salads, they can be made ahead, actually improving in flavor from a brief rest before serving. They are super versatile. Any crunchy vegetable, shredded and tossed with your favorite dressing (both creamy and not work equally well) can be a slaw. This recipe was inspired by Thai green papaya salad. The floral flavor of the pears is enhanced by some ginger juice, a gourmet sounding ingredient that you literally make in the palm of your hand. Use it as a bed for grilled chicken or pork or let it sidle up to your next sandwich or wrap. 

Ingredients:

2-inch piece of ginger

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice (from about 1/2 lime)

Salt and freshly ground pepper

A pinch of sugar

¼ cup neutral oil, such as grapeseed

1 carrot, peeled

2 Asian pears

2 cups bean sprouts

¼ cup salted peanuts

Cilantro, optional

Hot sauce, optional

Method:

Grate the ginger on the smallest holes of a box grater. Squeeze the shredded ginger in your fist, letting the juice fall into a medium bowl (you should have about 1 tablespoon). Add the lime juice, a pinch of salt, pepper and sugar and whisk to dissolve. Slowly add oil, whisking all the while.

Grate the carrots and the pears down to their cores on the largest holes of a box grater and add to the dressing bowl along with the sprouts. Toss to combine. Garnish with peanuts, cilantro and hot sauce, if using, and serve. Can be made up to two hours ahead.