Sunday, August 2, 2009

Outside the Box: How to find the best Korean Pears

Photo credit: Jeff Quackenbush, 2008
When buying fruit, there are three general rules of thumb many people use as they pace up and down the the fruit section of the grocery store or farmer's market.
  • Buy local — the pear grown close to home should taste better than the pear grown thousands of miles away.
  • Buy small — the smaller the fruit at the time of ripening, the better and more intense the flavor.
  • Buy soft — a degree of softness indicates ripeness for many fruits.
Asian pears break all of these rules. Asian pears are called apple-pears in the U.S. because they look like a mammoth orange-brown apple but taste like Bartlett or other varieties of pears grown on the continent. In taste-testing, I have noticed that Asian pears from Korea have more intense flavor than locally grown Asian pears.

I don't understand why pears shipped on a boat from 3,000 miles away taste better than pears grown 50 miles away. Is it the torrential summer rains in Korea, compared with little to no summer rain in California? However, other fruit such as grapes lose flavor intensity with increased size because of overwatering. Bigger certainly is better for Asian pears, especially the large Korean varieties.

I have tasted smaller American-grown Asian pears, but they have rather bland, and the flavor is overpowered in a salad. Korean pears are best eaten raw in salads, which is why it's a prominent ingredient in my Korean potato salad recipe.

Korean pears taste best when they are still very firm to the touch. They should feel heavier than their size would suggest. If they're squishy, leave them.

Asian pears have tender, paper-thin skin that bruise and discolor easily when handled roughly during the picking or packing. That's why you see them in pretty paper and foam wrappers and eggcrate-type boxes at Korean grocery stores.

So, although it's OK to squeeze these pears, don't squeeze too hard. Remember, you break it, you buy it.

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