Real Food Encyclopedia | Asian Pears
Asian pears are native to Japan and China where they have been grown for over 3,000 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.
Fun Facts about Asian Pears:
- 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. The trees can produce so much fruit that the weight of it snaps the limbs from the tree.
What to Look for When Buying Asian Pears
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 russeted with a fine web-like texture.
Asian pears bruise easily, so you want to look for those that have been carefully handled. They will often 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.
Sustainability of Asian Pears
Orchard fruits of all types are susceptible to pest infestation. Their sweet taste and heady fragrance make 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 added pears to its Dirty Dozen list of most contaminated produce items, it did not single out Asian pears as part of this group.
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.
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.
Eating Asian Pears
Asian pears keep very well. They can be held in cold storage for several months. At room temperature, the fruit will last two to three weeks before losing their crunchy textur
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. They are used in a variety of ways: the 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 and they taste great in fruit salad.
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 the fruit 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.
Top photo by bbourdages/Adobe stock.