In Yucatán, nearly everyone waits for pitaya season, hoping for a bountiful crop. This year looks promising. Already, baby pitayas are appearing in some markets.
Pitaya fruit is native to Mexico and Central America and grows on several different cactus species. But in Yucatán, when people speak of pitayas, they almost always are referring to the larger pinkish variety with green ridges, white flesh, and tiny black seeds.
The appearance of the pitaya fruit has led to it being known in much of North America and Europe as dragon fruit, due to its shape and protruding green ridges reminiscent of a dragon’s scales. Because of this nickname, many people think that pitayas are in fact from Asia. But in reality, the fruit was first introduced to Asia via Vietnam by French traders in the 1800s.
“Pitayas always remind me of my home in Yucatán, you can actually get them here but they are usually quite expensive and look kinda beat up,” says Roque Arcudia, an IT specialist from Mérida working in Silicon Valley.
Despite its dramatic appearance, the flavor of pitaya is fairly mild, with many comparing it to a giant kiwi. It has a refreshing taste that makes it perfect for particularly warm days. And no, don´t worry about eating the seeds, they are extremely small and perfectly safe to eat.
How and when to enjoy
Peak pitaya harvesting season in Yucatán takes place during the late summer and early fall and can be found at fruit stands and markets across the peninsula. The average cost of a kilogram of pitaya is roughly 65 pesos, but prices can vary wildly. Pitaya may not be the most inexpensive fruit available in Yucatán, but consider that in the United States and Canada a single pitaya will often ring you over 10 dollars, and in Europe, the cost can balloon to well over 30 euros.
Pitayas are as delicious as they are beautiful to look at. What’s even better is that they are naturally fat-free and high in fiber and rich in antioxidants. The most common way to enjoy this exotic fruit is to simply cut it up or dig in with a spoon, sometimes adding a little sugar on top. Agua de pitaya, or pitaya juice, is also a great way to enjoy pitayas, especially if served chilled and with a dash of lemon juice.
Pitaya juice is particularly enjoyable when accompanied by traditional Yucatecan cuisine. If you are on your way to the beach at Celestún, make sure to make a stop in the city market in Umán (right next to the church) and chow down on some cochinita pibil tacos and fresh pitaya juice — a Yucatán classic. The entire meal is unlikely to ring you more than 100 pesos or US$5, including tip.
Aside from straightforward juice, pitayas can be made into a wide series of concoctions, some of which find themselves on cafe and restaurant menus. Unless you have money to burn, avoid the almost 100-peso iced pitaya beverage sold by a certain Seattle-based coffee chain that will remain nameless. Instead, check out a local eatery like Loncheria La Lupita on Calle 22 in Gacía Ginerés for a tall refreshing glass of agua de pitaya that will ring you about 25 pesos.
Pitaya ice cream and sorbets are a great way to deal with the summer heat. They are especially easy to make if you have an ice cream machine. Why not try mixing and matching pitaya with some other fruit flavors like mango or mamey?
If you have pitayas, ice, a blender, and some tequila or vodka — congratulations. You have everything you need to prepare yourself an ice-cold pitaya daiquiri or smoothie to enjoy in your yard or swimming pool. For color add a little of pitaya’s own red rind, but don’t go overboard as too much will make it sour.
Pitaya also tastes great in fruit salads. Use a melon baller to extract the flesh of the fruit and combining it with kiwi, mango, star fruit, or berries. For an additional exotic touch serve your fruit salad mix in the hollowed-out pitaya skin.
If you search online for “pitaya recipes” you will find a plethora of pitaya-inspired desserts such as crepes, pancakes, and cheesecakes. It seems like the rest of the world is finally taking notice of this highly versatile fruit.
Growing and tending to pitayas
The cactus on which pitayas grow is almost as beautiful as the fruit itself. Unlike most cacti, the pitaya is a climbing plant that needs support to grow properly. They are commonly seen growing over walls or on top of other sturdier vegetation. It is a subtropical plant that needs a lot of heat and humidity, so of course, it thrives in Yucatán.
Before pitaya trees produce fruit, gorgeous white flowers bloom at night and exude a sweet, heady aroma. Seeing these flowers dry up and die is bittersweet as they really are splendid, but their passing signals the growth of the cacti’s delectable fruit.
The easiest way to grow your own pitaya is from the cuttings of another plant. Just make sure to not take too much from the parent plant, as this can stunt its growth. A foot’s worth should be enough to yield up to three new plants. Next, dry the cutting for five days; you will know they are ready when their tips start to turn white. At this point, you can place the cuttings facing in the same direction in two inches of soil. According to our friends at Vivero Colli, you should water your cuttings every other day, and soon you will see roots begin to appear. But don’t get too excited yet. The cactus will need three to five years of growth before it beings to produce fruit.
Pitaya can also be grown from its tiny black seeds, though this may be a little more tricky.
First, scoop out the seeds and let them dry overnight separated from the flesh of the fruit. Plant the seeds in moist soil but make sure that they are close to the top. If everything has gone right, the seeds should start to germinate after two weeks or so. Once this happens wait a couple of weeks for the young plants to grow before transplanting them to a larger pot.