As with apples, their close relatives, Asian pears are low in calories, but high in fiber, as well as potassium, vitamin C, vitamin K and the micronutrient copper.
What to look for
For the Grower
While hardier than apples, their cousins, Asian pears are susceptible to damage from a variety of sources. Their biggest insect threats include the codling moth, the plum curculio and the stinkbug. While the trees are blooming, they’re also vulnerable to a bacterial infection called fire blight, which makes limbs appear scorched, with wilted leaves.
Edyl Cunampio, orchard manager at the Longview Center for Agriculture, in Collegeville, grows Asian pears and other tree fruits with as few chemical inputs as possible. Instead of regular applications of fungicide, bactericide, insecticide and antibiotics, he protects his trees by monitoring insect populations and spraying neem oil, which interferes with insect life-cycles while stimulating the trees’ own immune response. As preventative measures, he also applies powdered clay to repel insects, and fish emulsion to nourish the trees. “You play the game, but you don’t play to win,” says Cunampio. But he adds that Asian pears typically fare better than apples, and he recommends them to novice fruit growers. “They’re much easier to grow. They don’t have much problem with fungus or insects.”
Beyond pest management, the most demanding part of growing Asian pears comes in early summer, when 80 percent of the juvenile fruit on each tree must be removed. This practice, called thinning, “is crucial,” says Lisa Kershner, who grows Asian pears with her husband Ike at North Star Orchard, in Cochranville. Though thinning might seem counterintuitive to eager home-growers, it’s a necessary step to ensure that the remaining fruit grows large and overburdened tree branches don’t break. “If you don’t thin, you wind up with small pears that don’t taste like anything.”
European pears are often picked underripe, but Asian pears must be tree-ripened to ensure sweetness. Cunampio says that people who come to Longview to pick pears sometimes have trouble choosing because they expect all ripe fruit to be soft, but Asian pears remain crunchy and firm, even when ripe. Wait for them to soften and they’ll be overripe, mushy and unappealing.
Longview and North Star grow Japanese varieties shinsui and hosui. In Coopersburg, a farm called Subarashii Kudamono — the phrase means “wonderful fruit” in Japanese — grows five proprietary varieties. The farm was started in 1973 by Joel Spira and his wife, Ruth Rodale Spira, after Joel was served Asian pears while in Japan on business. Subarashii Kudamono was not Joel’s first bright idea — he is also credited as inventor of the electric dimmer switch used in most houses. The company now sells Asian pears fresh and dried, as well as Asian pear wine and eau de vie, a clear fruit brandy, similar to grappa or kirsch.
For the Cook
Asian pears have a delicate flavor, like a subtly sweet melon, and a juicy crunch. Once uncommon, they now appear regularly at supermarkets, often wrapped in foam sleeves as they bruise easily, but Lisa Kershner suggests avoiding them as you would supermarket tomatoes. Both fruits taste best when tree or vine-ripened — a step that supermarket suppliers can’t take — and the Asian pears in the grocery store are often a grainy, dry disappointment. Kershner says that at farmer’s markets she and Ike must wage a “customer reeducation” campaign to demonstrate the fruit at its best.
Asian pears make a versatile addition to an autumn kitchen where they walk the line between sweet and savory. Because of their crisp texture, which tends to persist, it’s often better to choose one of two avenues for cooking: either very minimal, if any, to maintain their delicate flavor; or very long, to the point where they break down entirely. North Star Orchard employs the second method, slow-cooking Asian pear cider into molasses-y pear butter. Fresh, they provide sweet crunch in a cool weather salad next to bitter escarole, toasted walnuts and salty pecorino. Juiced or puréed, they’re often a component in the marinade for Korean barbecued meats, upon which they have a tenderizing effect.
Thomas McCarthy, pastry chef at Morimoto, appreciates them because they’re “not too sweet, [a] relief from tasting sugary things all day.” He loves the texture of the fruit and the nuances of flavor where “they can be subtly complex with caramel and hints of spice,” but he doesn’t typically cook them. “I find they are just too watery to bake with… I use them as a crispy-even-when-cooked compote… a little tart with yuzu or lemon [but] I still maintain that fresh is the best way to go.” McCarthy’s richly spiced gingerbread is an ideal counterpoint to the pear’s sweet crunch, or the accompanying compote recipe. Bring thick slices spread with salted butter to eat with on an autumn walk in the Wissahickon. You won’t miss summer one bit.
Asian Pear Compote & Pain D’Epicés
from the kitchen of Chef McCarthy
(Yields 1 cup)
- 2 medium Asian pears
- 2 tsp lemon juice
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 1 Tbsp cornstarch
- 2 Tbsp water
- 1 stick cinnamon
- 1 star anise pod
- 3 whole cloves
- 2-3 allspice berries
Peel and small-dice 2 Asian pears, immediately toss with lemon juice to maintain color.
Combine fruit and sugar and let sit for a few minutes to draw out juices.
Make a slurry by mixing cornstarch and water, and set aside.
Put fruit and spices into heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium high heat, stirring occasionally, and bring to rapid boil.
Add slurry while stirring and bring back to rolling boil, stirring all the while, for a full minute to cook the starch.
Remove from heat and cool. Remove spices.
- 1 ½ cup all purpose flour
- ½ cup buckwheat flour
- 2 tsp baking soda
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 Tbsp ground ginger
- tsp ground clove
- ¾ tsp ground black pepper
- 1 cup water
- ½ cup molasses
- ¼ cup honey
- 4 oz (1 stick) butter, room temperature
- ¼ cup dark brown sugar
- 1 tsp lemon zest
- 2 eggs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and butter a loaf pan. Sift together dry ingredients. Gently warm water, molasses and honey together. Using a hand or stand mixer, cream butter and brown sugar until they look light and fluffy, then add eggs and lemon zest. Alternate adding dry and wet ingredients to the butter, sugar and egg mixture. Mix until it comes together. Pour batter into greased pan. Bake 45 minutes to an hour, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool. Turn out of pan. Cool completely.
Wrap in a clean dishtowel and allow to age a couple of days to develop flavor. Slice and eat with compote or fresh Asian pears, cold from the refrigerator, and coffee or green tea.
For the Pantry
Canning Asian pears in syrup requires a heavy dose of lemon juice or other acid, which changes their character. Consider pickling instead, in a brine of water, vinegar, salt and sugar with wintry spices like clove and allspice or bright flavors like lemon and fresh ginger. Or dry in a dehydrator or an oven at the lowest possible setting. Peel, core and slice 6 pears 1/4 inch thick. Place in a bowl of water and the juice of a lemon for a few minutes. Drain, spread in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake, rotating occasionally, until dry but still pliable. Cool and store in an airtight container.
An alumna of Fair Food, Philabundance and Greener Partners, Emily Teel is a food freelancer dedicated to sustainable, delicious food in Philadelphia. See more of her work at emilyteel.com.