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New Jersey Asian Pears: Crunchy, Juicy, and Sweet
Fruits, Desserts, and Other Sweet Foods
Spring Volume: 1998 Issue: 5(1) page(s): 5, 6, and 18
Asian pears combine the familiar flavor and juiciness of a ripe pear with the crisp crunch of a firm apple, but remain mysterious to most people. The fruit’s many varieties differ greatly in color, shape and taste; its variant names – apple pear, salad pear and nashi – cause confusion. But these delightfully sweet and crunchy pears are well worth getting to know. To gain some insight, last autumn I spent two weeks intensively researching Asian pears in New Jersey.
Fruit experts say Asian pears won't flourish in the Northeast, but do not tell that to Ging Lee--his very name means 'pear' in Chinese. Born in Canton, he grows eleven varieties on fourteen acres at his Pittstown Fruit Farms in Hunterdon County, NJ. The idea for his orchard germinated in 1986, when his wife, Cindy, bought Asian pears in Manhattan’s Chinatown, and they decided they could do better. Unlike regular pears, the Asian kind must be fully ripened on the tree to achieve best flavor and sweetness. As with many fruits, the big commercial producers in California and the Pacific Northwest often harvest them too early.
On a gusty afternoon last September, Mr. Lee led a tasting tour of his farm, boasting: “My pears have to please me before I pick. We get a much sweeter, tastier fruit.” He chose a round, bronze-skinned Kosui, deftly peeled and sectioned it with his knife, and passed around pieces of crystalline white flesh that spurted the freshest of juice; they practically sang with sprightly flavor. A strange sight appeared in the next row: a tree covered with white bags wrapped around Shinseiki pears, to protect their delicate, light-yellow skins against unsightly scuffing and spotting. The practice is common in Japan, where the market demands unblemished fruit, but virtually unknown in America. “A lot of work,” grinned Mr. Lee.
Supermarket chains do not care about such artisanal methods, demanding mass supplies of standard-sized fruit, so Mr. Lee sells his fruit direct to the public, at the Bernardsville and Morristown farmers markets. At $1.25 a pound, his pears are a bargain; the Yaohan supermarket, in a Japanese shopping center in Edgewater, was recently charging $2.59 a pound.
Such high markups have hindered Asian pears from breaking out of the ethnic specialty niche to the mainstream. The fruit is difficult and labor-intensive to grow anywhere. The West Coast product benefits from dependably hot, dry conditions, but there it is hard for local farmers to raise large, perfect-looking pears that compete economically. Of the dozen or so growers in New Jersey, most are in the state’s southern half and have only a few acres, as a sideline to peaches, apples and other crops. For example, Genie Decou sells Asian pears at her roadside stand in Cumberland County, marketing them as 'papples' to lure new customers.
Toy Ding Chin, a retired farmer in Freehold, does not worry about sales; he gives away the harvest from his acre of Asian pears to friends and charity. “I just grow them experimentally now,” he explained, and reminisced: “I was born in 1910, in the last year of the Qing dynasty, and I grew up loving the fruit. In the old country, travelers often carried a few Asian pears with them to quench their thirst.”
Asian pears are botanically true pears (not, as some suppose, apple-pear hybrids) from three species indigenous to China. The Chinese have cultivated crunchy pears for more than two thousand years. They prize certain varieties, such as the 'phoenix roost' pear. In the 13th century, Marco Polo related seeing fragrant, white-fleshed pears weighing up to ten pounds. Some soft-fleshed European pears are grown in the Far East, but they have never become popular.
Chinese miners brought Asian pears to California during the Gold Rush but, for over a century, they were few commercial plantings. George Jackson of Kingsburg Apple Packers, which grows a third of the Asian pears in California, observed: “When I started twenty years ago, only two percent of Americans knew what an Asian pear was.” In the 1980’s, as a new wave of Asian immigrants arrived, interest in exotic fruits increased and cultivation multiplied tenfold. Jackson estimated that Oriental-Americans still buy sixty percent of his Asian pears.
More than one thousand varieties of Asian pears exist, of which two dozen are cultivated commercially in the United States. They fall into three main categories. Of the round, light-skinned pears, the best-known is the Nijisseiki, the 20th Century pear, which originated in Japan in 1898, and was largely responsible for the popularity of pears there. Its tender, greenish-yellow skin invited comparison with 'Kyoto beauties,' maidens celebrated for their pale complexions. With crisp, juicy flesh, and very little grittiness, the Nijisseiki was the leading variety in America for many years. The Shinseiki or New Century is similar, with yellower skin and a bit less flavor—though growing conditions and ripeness affect quality as much as the variety.
Another family of round pears, with russet skin (which may be tan, brown or even orangish), are generally sweeter and more perfumed than the milder, light-skinned sort. Nancy Fowler-Johnson, whose nursery in California is the nation’s leading supplier of Asian pear trees, describes the contrast as between a “drink of water and a candy bar.” Russet skin can be tough, but the best varieties, such as Hosui and Kosui, have rich full flavor.
The Chinese especially appreciate the third group, light green to yellow in color and shaped like European pears. The Ya Li or Duckbill Pear, named for its pointy top, is very crisp, with a flavor that’s milder than that of other varieties. Another old Chinese pear, the Tsu Li, has a blocky shape and prominent spots, and improves in flavor with storage. Some specimens are gigantic—up to four pounds.
Chinese typically eat their pears chilled, peeled, cored and sectioned. At the bright new Kam Man Food supermarket in Edison, which sells nine different varieties of Asian pear, Philip Chung, an assistant to the manager, noted that many of the younger generation eat pears whole, with the skin.
As with many fruits, most Chinese people believe that pears have medicinal properties. Mr. Chung claimed that a soup of pork, pears, dried almonds and jujubes “helps prevent cancer,” and Mrs. Lee said she makes steamed pears in the winter to soothe the throat. Another traditional preparation, Honey Pear Ham, is a sweet and savory dish that originated in Yunnan.
The Chinese word for pear, li, is similar to that for 'prosperity.' Wonona Chang, an author, editor, and Test Kitchen Director of Flavor and Fortune, recalled that her family often kept a lucky pear at the table for Chinese New Year. But li also recalls the word for 'separation,' so as a girl she would never divide a pear with a friend, lest they part forever.
Koreans prefer large, high-flavored russet pears, such as the Shinko. They float thin slices on a bowl of cold noodle soup for a favorite summertime meal. Koreans also make Beef Tartare with a quail egg, pine nuts and julienned Asian pear.
Although Asian pears are available year-round from storage, freshly picked fruit is most succulent. The California harvest starts in mid-July, and the New Jersey crop in late August; both finish in October. Many varieties store relatively well, and are available into mid-winter. A few expensive imports from Japan, Taiwan and Korea show up occasionally. Major shipments from Chile and New Zealand arrive in February and March; they are much improved in quality in recent years.
In shopping for light-colored varieties, look for skin that is more yellow than green, and has a translucent appearance. Most russet pears are ripe when they're golden brown, though some will retain a greenish tinge. Ripe Asian pears should be firm, but may reveal a very slight softening of the flesh, and a sweet aroma. Asian pears may feel like rocks, but they bruise easily, and are often wrapped in soft plastic protectors. Surface blemishes do not impair taste, but avoid fruit with soft spots. Though Orientals claim large pears are juicier and sweeter, medium-size fruit is cheaper and just as delicious.
When you get them home, Asian pears are ready to eat, and do not require further ripening, as European pears do. They last at room temperature for a week, and keep for months in a paper bag in the refrigerator. Asian pears are most refreshing when chilled, and their crispness is perfect for fruit salads. They can also be boiled or poached like regular pears, though they take longer to cook.
Try Asian pears now and next fall try them again delighting in those grown locally. For the latter experience, David Karp lists half dozen places in New Jersey where fresh Asian pears can be found in season. Out of season, you can purchase Asian pears in Asian and other markets. After the New Jersey locales listed below are two recipes provided for your enjoyment.
Bernardsville Farmers Market; Saturdays, 9 a.m. - 2 p.m., N.J. Transit R.R. Station (Somerset Co.): (908) 766-2900.
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