The Year of the Water Dragon is here. In the Philippines, January is thick with fiestas and areas such as Binondo in Manila are in full festival mode. But the place where my parents live is quiet, and just a few lonely firecrackers popped into the night. I suddenly missed the festivities of years past and remembered the golden and scarlet dragon dancers dazzling the streets of Oakland Chinatown.
It would be nice to have something dragon-like today, I thought. That's why a pile of vibrantly-hued dragonfruit caught my eye while picking up vegetables for dinner at a roadside palengke.
Magkano ang dragonfruit? (How much is the dragonfruit?) I asked in my twangy excuse for Tagalog. The woman named her price, but instead of calling it dragonfruit, she called it pitaya.
With its evocative name, dragonfruit is a minor celebrity gracing labels in the US, from mineral water to vodkas ("with essence of dragonfruit"), although who could really say what it tasted like, just as it was? This was the first time I had ever heard it by the name pitaya. We took one home, and while it chilled in the fridge, I sought background on this lovely fruit.
It turns out the pitaya, or pitahaya, has traveled far. Originating in the Americas, it is a vine-like cactus that became popular in East and Southeast Asia just over a century ago. The aromatic flowers bloom one night alone, on the full moon, and must be pollinated by nocturnal pollinators to produce a proper fruit. Its lifecycle alone sounds like a fantasy.
It was time to open the dragonfruit. The knife cut through easily. With its bold fuschia and lime green scales it promised heat and spice and explosion. Inside, though, the white flesh was a surprise - subtly sweet and refreshing, reminiscent of melons and cucumbers and studded with edible black seeds.
What a little dragon, I wanted to say. You are colored like fire but cool like water. Appropriate, it seems, for a water dragon year.