What Is an Asian Pear?
In the wide world of fruit, when is a pear an Asian pear? Can a fruit that looks more like an apple actually be called a pear? The sometimes confusing use of common (versus scientific and botanical) names can give us pause for thought in the fruit aisle. The term Asian pear is just one of many common names for the fruit produced by cultivars and varieties of Pyrus pyrifolia, a tree originally native to East Asia, and specifically to western China, and domesticated in prehistoric times. The genus Pyrus is what makes them pears; apples belong to the genus Malus. Asian pears are indeed round, apple-shaped fruits, and they are ripe when they are still firm, just like apples—they ripen best on the tree, and are often packed carefully, with a protective layer of insulation wrapped around each fruit, to prevent bruising. Their skins range from pale bronze to greenish-yellow, with a gently rough texture, matte finish, and distinctive, evenly distributed speckles. Slice a ripe one open and its flesh is white, crunchy, and juicy, with small seeds at the center.
In English, Asian pears are also known as apple pears, sand pears, nashi, Japanese pears, Chinese pears, Korean pears, and more. They have many common names, and because of their extraordinarily long history of cultivation there may now be thousands of cultivars, influencing their size, flavor, color, and harvest-time. As with most fruit and vegetables, the domestication of wild plants increased the fruit size of P. pyrifolia dramatically, and the heftiest cultivars of Asian pear can weigh in at four pounds for a single fruit. The Asian pears we usually see in U.S. markets are the size of a large apple.
The bell-shaped pear that is more often associated with the description "pear-shaped" is Pyrus communis, the fruit of a tree that originated in Eastern Europe or Western Asia. This common or European pear has many cultivars, too, although far fewer than Asian pears. And unlike Asian pears, European pears ripen off the tree, and are sweetest when they soften, when their texture is more creamy than the crisp Asian pear.
How Should You Eat Asian Pears?
Enjoying an Asian pear shouldn't be complicated. Raw is always very enlightening if you have never tried a fruit before. Slice a washed, ripe Asian pear thinly, right across, to show the cross section with the seeds; the beautiful raw slices make a simple and refreshing dessert or snack. In Korea baesuk (meaning cooked pear) is either a hot, therapeutic punch made by cooking the pears with spices, or simply a steamed and stuffed Asian pear (jujubes are a traditional stuffing). The crispness of Asian pears makes them an obvious salad ingredient and our Asian pear salad combines their succulent slices with the salt of prosciutto, the caramel of dates, and a flurry of peppery and bitter leaves. Asian pear juice is an effective meat tenderizer, so including the chopped or grated fruit in your favorite marinade will help soften chewy cuts.
If you do cook with Asian pears you will find that they do not break down and collapse in the away that apples or European pears do. Instead, they maintain their integrity and texture. Put this feature to good use by baking Asian pears in parchment with star anise, honey and vermouth. Poached Asian pear slices with ginger and vanilla are a deliciously simple dessert. Pairing Asian pears with sake makes for an unforgettably good Asian Pear Sorbet.