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July, 2012

Flying Kiwi Fruit

By Dennis Linden

About the size and shape of an egg, the fruit is jacketed in an unassuming brown that consumers easily overlook amongst the bold colors of tropical exotics, bright shades of citrus as well as a virtual rainbow of varietal peppers and veggies.

Bird

In researching the main ingredient for this month’s Cookin’ with the Kids feature, I discovered many interesting facts about kiwi fruit that would be lost on the kids; so one article “cell” sort of divided into two! Keeping that doubling image going, the kiwi is a fruit with a dual personality. There is the stoic, rather plain and unobtrusive public persona, which hides an altogether wild and crazy interior that is almost bizarre in contrast to its exterior.

About the size and shape of an egg, the fruit is jacketed in an unassuming brown that consumers easily overlook amongst the bold colors of tropical exotics, bright shades of citrus as well as a virtual rainbow of varietal peppers and veggies. Even the common red apple outshines the subdued exterior of the small and fuzzy kiwi. Like the flightless bird of the same name, the kiwi fruit certainly does not “fly” visually in the view of most shoppers who are not specifically looking for it.

However, sliced in half, the fruit’s vibrant jade-green leaps from the cutting board with an energy that has an aura of gaiety to it that almost brings a smile. Of course, I do resist the temptation to chuckle at my food if cooking with a group! Still, a crosscut slice of kiwi fruit is an absolutely delightful mandala of tiny black seeds, backed by an almost neon Irish green. The decorative culinary uses alone are enough to keep this fruit in the kitchen; its unique sweet-tart taste, which has been inadequately described as a mix of strawberry, melon, pineapple and grape, has earned the kiwi year-round tenure in the refrigerators of discerning foodies everywhere.

Kiwi

The path to the U.S. marketplace took several centuries that included what today, would be considered agricultural smuggling by a missionary, a few aliases and some good old-fashioned American tax evasion. For centuries, the fruit only grew wild on huge vines wrapped around ancient trees along the Yang-tse River in south China. It was called Yang Tao meaning “sun peach” and sometimes referred to as the “monkey peach” because the tall vines could only be picked by monkeys. Then, in 1905, a New Zealand missionary visited the region and returned home with the fruit as well as a few vine cuttings. The vines were planted by this missionary’s nurseryman neighbor. That initial planting took until 1910 to produce the first native sons (and daughters) of New Zealand kiwi fruit.

Kiwi grew in popularity with backyard gardeners quite rapidly throughout New Zealand, which caught the attention of that country’s professional growers. By the 1940’s, the fruit had become a viable commercial crop, marketed widely as a “Chinese Gooseberry” by retailers in Australia as well as New Zealand. Growing practices continued to develop until the domestic kiwi volume demanded international distribution and the first exports to the U.S. began in the late 1950s.

To distinguish the fruit from a real gooseberry in the international marketplace, the fruit was briefly renamed a “melonette”. A very short-lived moniker when it was discovered that there was a huge import duty on melons coming into this country. I envision a hastily convened meeting in Auckland, New Zealand (origin of the first fruit shipment) to come up with a tax-neutral name quickly to deal with this import duty crisis. It just so happened that the Kiwi, New Zealand’s national bird, is brown and sort of fuzzy-appearing at a distance; the resemblance is a bit of a stretch, but the rest is, as they say, marketing history. As a fresh produce marketer myself, I can only envy such an opportunity. If this country had been so lucky to produce a fruit that looked like an eagle! Soaring “Eagle Fruit” prices one can only imagine. Sorry, just could not resist.

Kiwi fruit is a complicated crop to grow. Vines generally crop in the fourth season with full production not being reached for 8 to 12 years. Further, fruit-producing pollination only happens between male and female plants. One male plant will pollinate about 5 females; male plants are scattered throughout a crop to insure optimum coverage. The preferred approach by commercial growers is a technique that force-feeds Kiwi flower pollen to bees in order to ensure fruit propagation. Bees have a limited flight span and are not very partial to Kiwi flower nectar. In fact, they will fly to those limits in search of any other flower species nearby in lieu of nearer Kiwi. So the grower will bring in way too many hives for the size of the crop and vicinity around the crop. By purposely overcrowding the orchard, the competition for those “other” flowers in the area is raised and some bees are forced to settle for Kiwi blossoms. Ha! That means that there are disgruntled bees out there, begrudgingly collecting Kiwi pollen and buzzing all about it! [Sorry #2]

By the 1970s, Kiwi was being commercially grown in California, providing year around availability. Today, Kiwi is grown around the world and Italy has deposed New Zealand as the leading producer of the fruit globally. In the retail marketplace, California’s production supplies good volumes of the fruit from October through March, then Chile and New Zealand take over during the spring and summer months.

A simple web search for Kiwi recipes will net a plethora of salad ingredient combinations from fruit to nuts as well as an equally large selection of luscious dessert preparation suggestions. However, Kiwi is also a very effective meat tenderizer, so consider incorporating the fruit into savory dishes as well. Simply mash or cut the fruit in half and rub it over any kind of meat, then let it marinate for no longer than 40 minutes. The enzymes in Kiwi are what tenderize; however, if left on the meat too long, the protein breaks down and turns the texture mushy. Cooking stops this process.

Those same enzymes are also why there will never be real Kiwi jell-o. The fruit inhibits gelatin from setting. The protein in dairy products is affected in the same way. So if kiwi is used as a topping on ice cream or yogurt, it should be eaten immediately. Does anyone really have to be counseled to eat ice cream quickly? It’s the only path to a second helping!

My research also revealed that Kiwi will store in high humidity at 31° from 4 to 6 months. The fruit can be ripened up in just a few days if left in a sealed bag at room temperature. I cannot verify this long shelf life characteristic; the fruit has a tendency to fly out of my refrigerator every time I open it, wings or no wings!