I probably wouldn’t be working at North Star Orchard if it weren’t for the Asian pears. It’s true – they’re what drew my attention to this farm years ago at Philadelphia farmers’ markets. I’m not the only one; they truly have a cult following. I’ll often open my mouth to answer a question about them at a market, only to have another customer standing nearby answer enthusiastically for me. I’ve heard about Asian pears shipped away to kids at college who are yearning for a taste of home, and about some that are shipped each year to relatives in Europe. I know my parents won’t let me in the door at Christmas-time if I don’t bring pears along.
So many people love them, but they’re still a bit of a mystery to most. What are these things? These “apple pears,” “Korean pears,” “sand pears,” “salad pears,” nashi? Well, “apple pear” is misleading; they really have nothing to do with apples, except that they share a plant family (Rosaceae). What they actually are is another species of pear, Pyrus pyrifolia, that has been traditionally grown in Japan, China, and Korea. You’ve been eating them for weeks (if not years) now, so I don’t have to tell you what they taste like, or about their characteristic crunch. Unlike “European” pears, Asian pears are picked ripe and ready to eat – none of that guesswork about when it’s reached its moments-long window of peak ripeness before turning to unpleasant mush in the center. Keep them in your fridge loosely in a plastic bag and they’ll keep for weeks. (Especially good to know this time of year when the CSA’s ending!)
Perhaps the Asian pear fervor is only unusual in this country where fruit generally serves as a sort of placeholder. We’re not accustomed to great flavor, but rather a healthy something to tide us over or fill a lunch bag. Most of us grew up on inoffensive-at-best apples and identical-looking bananas, definitely nothing to get excited about. In Asia, however, where these pears come from, they’re served as a special treat or gift or shared around the table after a meal. Here, as well, I sense that Asian pears are treated as something special. If nothing else, the price inspires a bit more awe than we’re used to affording a piece of fruit, and reflects the hours spent hand-thinning the crop as well as their fragile nature.
All season long I’ve been looking forward to learning more about these pears and their traditional uses, and I have to confess, I haven’t been too successful. There still isn’t that much information out there, readily available on the information superhighway (in English anyway). I was, however, able to find a bit on their usage in traditional Chinese medicine. From Kitchen Medicine Cooking Medicine, a blog about Food, Herbs, and Philosophy from Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine:
“The most common Kitchen Medicine in the East for the lungs are Pears. Pears are cooling and moistening which in moderation is how the lungs like to be. Not only do pear’s cool energy counteract the heat building in your lungs with infection, but their viscous moist quality is a natural lubricant for the mucous membranes of the lungs, with expectorant qualities, too.
Bite into a ripe pear. Compare with a ripe Apple. Pears have a viscous quality. This is a moistening characteristic that targets the lungs and nasal passages, and makes them excellent food this time of year, raw or cooked.”
Appropriately enough, I was fighting off a cough as I did my research, and it took longer than it should have for me to realize that I should get up off the couch and go steam some Asian pears. I highly recommend this recipe (adapted from Nina Simonds’ A Spoonful of Ginger), even if you’re feeling 100% healthy. Once cooked, the texture of Asian pear is remarkably similar to cooked European pears.
For anyone who’d like to dabble in the world of pickle making, Asian pears can also be used in kimchi. I’d recommend using Olympic, a Korean variety with a little more crunch and tart flavor. Another Korean cooking technique I learned: use Asian pear to marinate and tenderize beef in recipes such as bulgogi and galbi.
Also, one of the nicknames for Asian pears, “salad pears” makes a great suggestion – they go fabulously in salads, providing a sweet and crunchy counterpoint especially to bitter or spicy greens. Finally, online success – a search easily turns up a number of Asian pear salad recipes…
from New York chic (good luck sourcing the mâche outside of Union Square!): Morimoto’s Asian Pear Salad … to a tasty way to balance out bitter endive or escarole: Endive and Asian Pear Salad … to something like this, which comes pretty near my idea of food perfection: Asian Pear and Arugula Salad with Goat Cheese.
All of these suggestions, however, are contingent on any Asian pears lingering beyond the moment you take them out of their bag. The traditional way to eat a North Star Asian pear is, after all, to simply eat it, as soon as possible, caution to the wind with juice flying, a bit of the mystery still intact.