On a recent Sunday morning, Lester Kirksey almost caused a riot handing out free Asian pears at his stall at the Alhambra Farmers Market. As he furiously cranked a fruit peeler, the mostly Chinese-American crowd, several rows deep, crowded in with hands outstretched for samples.
A few yards away, another farmer from the San Joaquin Valley, Alex Causey, sold all his 47 boxes of round yellow pears in two hours.
One bite of a good Asian pear--crunchy, juicy and sweet--explains the commotion. While European pears such as Bartletts and Boscs ripen off the tree to develop a buttery texture and a musky, wine-like flavor, Asian pears are ready to eat at harvest and combine a subtle pear taste with the crispness of a firm apple. Although underripe or over-stored specimens have no more flavor than jicama, a freshly picked Asian pear gushes delicate juice that's ideally refreshing on a hot summer day.
Asian pears are botanically true pears (not, as some suppose, apple-pear hybrids) from three species indigenous to China, where they have been cultivated for 4,000 years. A book from the 1st century BC tells of pears "as large as a fist, sweet as honey and crisp as a water chestnut" and states, "Those who grow a thousand pear trees are as rich as barons with a thousand tenant farmers." In the 13th century, Marco Polo related seeing fragrant, white-fleshed pears weighing up to 10 pounds.
Today, pear orchards flourish throughout China, especially in the eastern and central regions. Last year China produced more pears than the rest of the world combined and virtually all were Asian pears. The European pear has never been popular in China.
The Japanese have grown crunchy pears since the 7th century, but the early fruits were tiny and gritty, with rough skins and an insipid flavor. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they bred sweet, succulent varieties, leading to widespread cultivation.
Most Japanese pear orchards are intensively worked operations of a few acres. The farmers go to fantastic lengths to deliver perfect nashi, as they call the fruit, placing double-layered bags around individual fruits on the tree, in the case of light-skinned varieties, to protect them against insects, disease and blemishes. Just before harvest, they remove the bags and put foil reflectors under the pears to develop an attractive rosy blush, turning the fruit by hand for even coloration.
The first American to grow Asian pears, William Prince of Flushing, N.Y., imported the "sand pear," as it was known in China, about 1820. During and after the California Gold Rush, Chinese miners and railroad workers planted Asian pear seeds in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. In the late 19th century, many Chinese sharecroppers grew pears, though no records remain to tell whether some were Asian kinds.
One of the earliest known commercial growers, a San Francisco physician named Dr. Wong Him, established a 15-acre orchard of round, brown Chinese pears in the Santa Clara Valley around 1921.
Japanese immigrants, arriving between the 1890s and the immigration restriction of 1924, brought cuttings of improved varieties. From a few small orchards in the Sacramento Delta and in Placer County, particularly around the towns of Loomis and Newcastle, they sent shipments to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Honolulu and Eastern cities. After World War II, Asian pears fetched high prices--$18 a box, compared to $3 for peaches--so cultivation gradually expanded.
A new wave of Asian immigration beginning in the late 1960s prompted a wild gold rush in Asian pears from 1980 to 1987. As entrepreneurs in the Central Valley planted massive blocks of trees, acreage soared from a few hundred at the start of the decade to 5,000 or more at the end.
As happens with most such agricultural frenzies, however, glut ensued, and production leveled off or declined slightly in the last decade. California represents 80% to 90% of the domestic harvest (no one collects exact statistics), but substantial orchards exist in Oregon and Washington, and there are a few groves in Oklahoma, Georgia and New Jersey. Although the fruit's popularity at mainstream supermarkets has greatly increased in recent years, about two-thirds of sales are still to Asian Americans.
The king of California Asian pear growers is George Jackson, the owner of Kingsburg Apple Packers. His domain of vast orchards surrounded by chain-link fences, 20 miles southeast of Fresno, displays an almost military regimentation. On a recent morning, the 50-ish Jackson reviewed his troops: 600 acres of vigorous Asian pear trees, trained to Tatura trellises, a Y-frame system developed in Australia that maximizes exposure to the sun.
"Watch out, it's about to go off," he cautioned, pointing to what looked like a plastic mini-howitzer. Seconds later, the butane air gun exploded with a bone-jarring boom intended to scare off the marauding crows, starlings and sparrows that peck holes in the fruit.
Jackson's gravest battle is not with crows but with fire blight, a bacterial disease that spreads on warm, wet days during springtime bloom. "You miss one spraying at the wrong time and you're out of the pear business," he declared. "In 48 hours you can lose the whole tree, right down to the root--like a snake bit it." Branches infected by this scourge turn black as if singed, and the only way to save the tree is to amputate them.
Nearby, in Jackson's state-of-the-art "shed"--a building the size of two football fields, specially designed for Asian pears--he can pack 10,000 boxes an hour. This fruit factory hums with conveyor belts, suction cups, optical sizers and sticker applicators, but the final packing is still done by hand. Workers wear cotton gloves because, though Asian pears may look and feel like rocks, the slightest bruise will show up in the store as an ugly black mark, rendering the fruit unsalable. Some shippers wrap pears in soft plastic "socks."
"The name of the game in this business is volume, efficiency and careful handling," Jackson said with a characteristic wink.
Commercial producers must tread a fine line in choosing when to harvest. Picked too soon, Asian pears taste like raw potatoes; picked too ripe, they don't keep well in storage. Compromise between flavor and shelf life is inevitable.
Twenty miles east of Jackson's orchards, at the K&K; Ranch in Orosi, Stan Kashima had his hands full with just five unruly acres of super-ripe Asian pears. Kashima's father-in-law planted the trees in 1980, alongside persimmons, pomegranates and Kelsey plums but leased the property five years ago when he fell ill.
Kashima worked for TWA until this year, when he reclaimed the farm. The tenant had neglected the orchard, and Kashima didn't have time to thin the crop earlier in the summer--a labor-intensive procedure that results in fewer but larger fruits. As a result, the trees bore spectacular clusters of fiery yellow pears.
"I wanted to let them get really ripe, anyway," said Kashima with a grin, sweating profusely in the 108-degree heat.
The next morning, Kashima drove four hours to Torrance to deliver a truckload to his wife, June, who beamed as customers approached her stand at the Venice Farmers Market. Some seemed baffled by the display ("Asian pear--what's that like?") but others whooped when they tasted the tree-ripe samples.
Some experts claim that the best Asian pears in California still come from their traditional growing region, the Sierra Nevada foothills in Placer County, where cool Pacific breezes sweep in at night, delaying ripening. Alas, most of the old growers, second-generation Japanese Americans famed for their horticultural skill, have died or cut down their trees, unable to compete with the vast plantings of the Central Valley. Where plum and pear orchards once covered the hills with snowy blooms in springtime, housing tracts are spreading, and all but one of the area's 22 packing sheds have folded.
Still, a dwindling rear guard continues to grow Asian pears, more out of affection for the fruit than with any hope of profit. In Granite Bay, Richard Nishimura, 71, still tends three acres of Okusankichi, the Japanese brown pear, a large oval fruit that matures in mid-October.
Wading through the orchard's dew-laden grass with his dog on a recent morning, he mused, "I just grow a little bit to keep me busy."
Deeper in the hills, in Auburn, Herb Yamamoto has cut back from 42 acres of Asian pears to three. He sells the fruit to visitors to his farm, but notes, "If I can't sell them, I throw them away. There's no place to take them anymore."
Few remember the early years of Asian pears. Yet George Yamasaki, a retired nurseryman of 94, recalls that his father, Zenkichi, started growing them in 1915, 10 years after immigrating to America.
Wandering through his exquisite garden near Auburn, Yamasaki fondly stroked a wizened bonsai Asian pear tree with fruit the size of cherry tomatoes, as his son, Ray, a landscape architect, translated his words: "Like many people, we had nashi, maybe 10 or 15 trees, just for friends and family. No one knew much about them." One friend, he said, grew five acres of pears and used to take them to the Japanese neighborhoods of Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 1930s.
During World War II, a friendly judge took care of the Yamasakis' land while they were confined, as so many Japanese Americans were, in the Tule Lake internment camp.
The Yamasakis sold their original land in 1951, and the property, which they had not seen for many years though it was only a few miles from where they now live, lay derelict. The unwatered pear trees were presumably dead.
As the afternoon faded, Ray, his curiosity piqued by a reporter's questions, drove up a winding road to revisit the abandoned farm and the house where he had been born. He recalled his favorite Asian pear tree, a Chojuro, a traditional Japanese variety that turns bronze-orange when ripe; his mother used to pack the fruits in sawdust to keep in the cellar for the winter. Arriving at the driveway, he ducked through a barbed wire fence and made his way through dense brush and sagging, twisted trees to the old home, which his father rebuilt by hand after vandals burned it during the war. But only the foundations remained, covered with a pile of roof tiles.
"Oh my, it's been burnt down again," he exclaimed, his eyes narrowing. He gazed around at the old bathhouse and the bamboo garden, then gasped to see, just behind the ruins of the woodshed, his beloved Chojuro tree, 30 feet tall, rising through a tangle of creepers and thorns, its fruit flaming gold in the sunset.
The gulf between sublime and mediocre Asian pears is wide, and choosing ripe, flavorful fruits requires knowing a bit about the seasons, growing areas and varieties. First, look for freshly picked pears; after a few months in storage, most modern varieties lose crispness and acidity, and they taste flat.
In typical years, the Central Valley harvest runs from mid-July through September, though cold weather early this season has delayed maturity by 10 days to two weeks. Only about a dozen farms grow Asian pears in Southern California, where few areas get enough winter chilling for a bountiful crop. The harvest from these orchards, chiefly in mountain regions, starts in late August or early September.
Asian pears come in many colors, shapes and flavors. More than 3,000 varieties exist in China, and some two dozen are grown commercially in the Unites States. Three groups predominate here: 1) Round or flattish-round with green to yellow skin; 2) Round or flattish-round with brown and russet skin; 3) Pyramidal or football-shaped with green to yellow-green skin. Generally, the first two kinds are Japanese types; the third is Chinese.
The classic round, light-colored variety is Nijisseiki, or 20th century pear, which originated in Japan in 1898 and revolutionized pear farming. Its delicate silvery-green skin invited comparison with "Kyoto beauties," maidens celebrated for their pale complexions. With crisp, juicy flesh, balancing acidity and very little grittiness, the Nijisseiki was the leading variety in America for many years.
The Shinseiki ("New Century") has yellower skin, a harder, coarser texture and a bit less flavor.
Russet Asian pears are generally larger, sweeter, softer and more aromatic than the light-skinned ones. Nancy Fowler-Johnson, vice president of Fowler Nurseries in Newcastle, which supplies 18 varieties of pears to growers, describes the contrast in flavor as between a "drink of water and a candy bar." Although the skin can be tough and bitter, the flesh of really ripe brown pears has an almost melon-like texture.
Until recent decades, most of the russet varieties available in California had only fair flavor, but the advent of improved Japanese varieties has greatly increased their popularity. Hosui, the growers' favorite, is exceptionally tender, sweet, juicy and rich-flavored. As russet pears ripen, they change from greenish-brown to tan; some varieties turn to orange-brown.
The Chinese traditionally favor the third group, shaped like European pears. The venerable Ya Li (the "duckbill pear," named for its pointy top) has smooth, slightly waxy skin, crisp white flesh and a mild sweet-tart taste that sometimes verges on musty. These late-season pears pass from green to yellow-green as they ripen. Fully yellow specimens may be over the hill.
In Chinese and Japanese culture, pears serve not just as food but as gifts, offerings at altars and aesthetic objects to grace the table. Large fruit is prized and commands a premium price. Many families like to share big pears (though the superstitious avoid this practice, since the Chinese word for pear, "li," sounds like the word for separation).
Ripe small pears taste just as good as larger ones, but they have a higher ratio of skin and core to flesh (the core is bland or slightly sour). At the other extreme, gigantic pears--some weigh four pounds--taste dry and woody, so medium-size fruits are the best bet for value and flavor.
Ripe Asian pears should be firm but may reveal a very slight softening of the flesh and a sweet aroma. They last at room temperature for a week but keep best in a paper bag in the refrigerator and are most refreshing when chilled.
The traditional Chinese and Japanese way to eat pears is between or after meals, peeled, cored and sectioned. Today, many of the younger generation eat them whole, with the skin.
One classical Chinese savory dish, Honey Pear Ham, originated in Yunnan province. Hong Kong chefs batter-fry sliced roundels of pears and scallops, then stir-fry them along with bamboo shoots and water chestnuts.
The Chinese believe that pears, like many other foods, have medicinal properties. They're thought to soothe the throat and lungs and reduce mucus. Steamed pears with honey are a common winter cold remedy, and several preparations, with names like "Singer's Delight," include almonds and chin poi (a tiny white lily bulb), which work to similar effect.
Koreans prefer russet pears. Yongsusan, a restaurant in Los Angeles' Koreatown, prepares the classic barbecue dish bulkogi by marinating beef with chopped Asian pears instead of sugar. The fruit tenderizes the meat and aids in its digestion, says Nosoo Kim, the owner. He also serves thinly sliced pears in cold noodle soup with stewed beef, a boiled egg and chile paste. Most intriguingly, he prepares kimchi in the style of Kaesong, his birthplace in North Korea, with 20 ingredients which include Asian pear, seafood, vegetables and chestnuts. Another famous Korean dish is yuk'oe: diced raw beef and pears.
At the eclectic restaurant 2424 Pico, David Wolfe makes a reduction sauce of very ripe Asians pears with lemon grass or saffron, which he pairs with fish. At Jozu, owner Andrew Nakano and chef Suzanne Tracht offer a veritable Asian pear feast: sauteed foie gras with crisp potato pancake and Asian pear chutney; roast loin of pork with Asian pear apple sauce; warm duck salad with Asian pear and watercress in an orange honey ginger vinaigrette; and Asian pear and ginger tart with vanilla bean ice cream.
Born in China, this refreshing, versatile fruit wins new friends with every bite.
ASIAN PEAR TART
Recipe from Jozue Restaurant, West Hollywood.
2 cups (4 sticks) butter, ice cold and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 cups powdered sugar
3 egg yolks
1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
4 3/4 cups flour
BROWN SUGAR FILLING
1 1/2 cups light brown sugar
1/3 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Flour for dusting tart shells
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, plus extra for greasing tart shells
2 1/4 cups heavy whipping cream
3 to 5 Asian pears, cored and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
Beat butter and powdered sugar on medium speed in electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment 5 minutes. Scrape down sides of bowl. Add yolks 1 at a time with mixer on low speed. Add cream and mix at medium speed 1 minute. Turn off mixer and add flour. Mix on low speed until combined. Do not over-mix. Divide dough in half, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate 1 hour.
BROWN SUGAR FILLING
Combine brown sugar, flour and cinnamon in bowl and stir until there are no lumps. Set aside.
Butter and flour 12 (4 1/2-inch) or 2 (10-inch) tart shells. Remove 1 piece of dough from refrigerator and roll out 1/4 inch thick. If making individual tarts, cut dough into 6-inch rounds. Line tart shells with dough, trimming any excess dough even with edge of tart shell. Repeat with remaining piece of dough.
Fill each tart shell half way with Brown Sugar Filling. For individual tarts, dot each with 1 teaspoon butter in pieces and spoon on 3 tablespoons cream. Arrange 1/4 to 1/2 Asian pear, depending on size of fruit, on each tart. Bake at 325 degrees until golden brown, about 35 minutes.
For 10-inch tarts, dot each with 2 tablespoons butter in pieces and spoon on 9 tablespoons cream. Arrange Asian pear slices on each tart. Bake at 325 degrees until golden brown, 45 to 50 minutes.
Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.
6 servings. Each serving without ice cream:
1,737 calories; 758 mg sodium; 459 mg cholesterol; 110 grams fat; 158 grams carbohydrates; 15 grams protein; 0.29 gram fiber.
DOUBLE-BOILED ASIAN PEARS WITH ALMONDS
Sweet-n-Tart Cafe, a small, cheery restaurant on Mott Street in New York City, specializes in tong shui, dishes that serve as medicine as well as food. Many Chinese believe that Asian pears soothe coughs and respiratory congestion, and this delicious recipe from owner Spencer Chan for steamed, sweetened pears includes ingredients that are believed to do the same: two kinds of almonds and a small, round white herb called chin poi in Cantonese and chuan bei mu in Mandarin (the Latin name is Fritillaria cirrhosa). Ya Li pears are usually used in this recipe, but other varieties of Asian pears will work as well.
2 tablespoons chin poi herb
2 Asian pears
2 tablespoons sliced "south" almonds
2 teaspoons sliced "north" almonds
6 tablespoons sugar
Boil chin poi in 1 cup water in saucepan 5 to 10 minutes to remove impurities. Strain and set chin poi aside. Discard cooking liquid.
Peel and core pears. Slice each into 6 or 8 sections and cut each section into 1-inch pieces.
Place 2 cups water in ceramic container that can be tightly sealed. Add pears, north and south almonds and chin poi. Sprinkle in sugar. Tightly seal container with lid or plastic wrap and place in steamer partly filled with water and tightly seal. Bring to boil, reduce heat and steam until almonds and pears are slightly soft, about 1 hour.
Spoon into serving bowls.
2 servings. Each serving:
466 calories; 2 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 54 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.41 gram fiber.