Friday, Jul 25, 2014
Agri Leader

Longing for the tropical fruit longans


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If you're looking to change up your fruit routine, then look for dragon eyes.

"Dragon eyes" is actually another name for the fruit longan, or long nhăn in Vietnamese. The nickname originated because the black, large seed inside the fruit contrasts with the clear jelly-like inside, making it look like a dragon eye.

Longans originally hail from Asia and are particularly popular in Vietnam. They are a cousin to a lychee. The exotic fruit has grown right here in Florida for at least 20 years.

I'm going to fill you in on the longan market here in the state, but let's talk turkey first - how they look and taste. "They have the appearance and texture of a grape. The taste is like a lighter-flavored cantelope," said Louise King, vice president of Tropical Fruit Growers of Florida.

I'd agree with that. Think of something about the size of a very large grape with a brownish skin that you peel off. You eat the jelly-like inside but not the "eye"-the seed inside.

I read online that longans are high in vitamin C - a half cup can provide 80 percent of your daily needs - and that they are low-calorie.

Bich-Mai Saunders, a Sarasota resident originally from Vietnam, had told me over the phone where to look for Asian fruit in the area - even though she wasn't sure exactly what I was looking for. When I arrived at Vung Tau Oriental Market, I had no clue where to go and tried fruitlessly (pun intended) to find longans amidst duck eggs, all kinds of noodles, large bags of rice, and various seasonings. The clerk led me to longans and let me try one before I bought some. The clerk told me the longans they sell are grown right in Sarasota, from a neighbor's longan tree. He told me that the Vietnamese eat longans fresh but also cook them and use them in fruit salads.

By coincidence, Saunders was at the market when I visited. "Oh, that's what you wanted! You said a different name!" she told me when I showed her the longans. She didn't recognize the name of the fruit in English.

If you end up looking for and liking longans, you'll have my good friend Mary in Virginia to thank. Mary discovered longans through a neighbor, who also told her the fruit grows in the Sunshine State. Mary makes special trips to an Asian supermarket to buy the fruit regularly, and she snacks on them like they're candy. I picture my friend chasing after her two young boys all day and stopping periodically to peel open another longan.

A boom market for this exotic fruit

So let's get back to the longan market here in Florida.

We think so much in Florida about oranges and strawberries, it's easy to forget that certain tropical fruits are a big business here. Farmers growing longans have a plentiful market in big cities like New York, Los Angeles and other metropolises, said King. "They go all over the United States. People love them," she said. She's even heard of families buying 50 to 100 pounds of longans at one time and inviting family members over to eat them.

Although the fruit traditionally harvests in July through September, growers can use chemical manipulation to harvest longans year-round, said King. The fruit is sensitive to frost, so it's mostly grown in South Florida's Dade County and along the coastline. It rarely grows in north Florida, she explained.

Peter Pith of Khemara Farms in Homestead, is one example of a longan farmer. Pith grows longans, guava, lychee and bananas, and confirmed that his longans are sold in major markets like New York, Chicago and Boston. He said it's a great fruit to sell because of the demand for it in major cities and because our climate is perfect for growing the fruit. However, he said it's hard to pin down how much he sells in a given year because his crop is so dependent on how warm or cold the winter is. He considers himself a medium-sized grower.

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