I first tasted rau tien vua at Jai Yun, one of my favorite Chinese restaurants in San Francisco. The small plate of faded green cubes, not quite nopales, not quite artichokes, confounded two full circles of seasoned food professionals. Thanks to the magic of my cell phone and the memories of my mother, I learned that the toothsome bites were simply the dried leaves of dragon fruit trees.
I use “tree” in a loose sense of the word. Dragon fruit is actually a succulent vine that, when left to grow unpruned, rambles across the ground in a heap of fleshy spears or clambers up neighboring trees, fences, walls and houses, covering them completely and hovering like a massive, green mop ready to sweep away lesser plants in its path. But no, it only waits quietly for some moon-free night to unfold its secret blossoms.
(Photo by Chrisada Sookdhis)
Perhaps budding in the dark gives the plant the courage it needs to bear the wildest, weirdest fruit of the southern latitudes. If you’re lucky to be in Southeast Asia during the fruiting season, you might well see its magenta-pink ornaments hanging down, daring you to touch their chartreuse scales and bite into their polka-dotted flesh. It’s refreshing in its watery coolness, what a sweat-stained and dust-covered traveler might need crossing a barren land.
Yes, but what to do with all those thick and snaky leaves? Ingenious cooks will dry them — because when in doubt, preserve! — and then skein the stripped, yard-long leaves into silvery, green bundles. At some later moment of inspiration, the dried leaves will finally be submerged in the water they crave.
For your first time with dragon fruit leaves, a basic sauce or vinaigrette is all that’s needed. This is about texture: bite demurely or prepare for the crunch in your mouth that will be heard across the room. Once you know them better, then unleash your love. The reconstituted leaves will hold up to a mustardy oil treatment or a thick cloak of chili-garlic paste. Long fermentation would suit them well, too.
Dragon fruit is not as rare as many think, and its already roving leaves deserve much greater spread.
Dragon Fruit Leaf with a Hint of Garlic
I started out making a bold Sichuan-style pickle but my kitchen muse nudged me toward this refreshing, sweet-sour palate cleanser, a pickle more evocative of goi, those ubiquitous salads that grace Vietnamese tables. This is a fresh, light, quick pickle that still keeps very well in the refrigerator for weeks. Vegetarians can replace the fish sauce with salt to taste or, if a darker tint is not minded, a splash of soy sauce.
Makes about 2 cups.
20 or so split and dried leaves of the dragon fruit vine
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons rice vinegar, or 2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 thumbnail-sized clove garlic, crushed and minced finely
1 red bird chile, seeded and thinly sliced, or a pinch of dried chile flakes
Soak the long leaves in cold water for at least 2 hours. Drain and squeeze well to remove excess water, taking care not to wring the leaves into shreds. Trim away their stem ends, and then cut the leaves crosswise into small chunks.
In a bowl generous enough to allow easy mixing of all the leaves, stir together the sugar, vinegar, fish sauce, garlic and chile until the sugar grains dissolve completely. While stirring, crush the garlic gently against the side of the bowl to infuse their flavor into the liquids. Let the flavors meld at room temperature.
Add the chopped dragon fruit leaves and toss to coat completely. The pickle can be served immediately but improves if allowed to stand for an hour or two with occasional stirring and tasting and adjusting.