Tropical Fruit Facts and Legends: Pineapple – The Fruit of Hospitality

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A pineapple plantation in the Philippines (Tupi, South Cotabato)

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Fresh pineapples with their crown

Strange Fruit from the Tropics

In 1493, when Columbus and his men arrived in the island of Guadalupe; Carib Indians showed their gesture of friendship and hospitality to strangers by offering juicy slices of a succulent fruit to Columbus and his men.  Seafarers of the great sailing ships of the 16th century, when they made land fall on exotic tropical islands, were welcomed by natives with the same succulent fruit.   The seafarers brought home from their voyages this mysterious fruit which eventually became known as the pineapple. The captain would spear a pineapple on a fence post outside his home to let his friends know of his safe return from the sea and as a sign of an invitation for them to visit, share his food and drink, and listen to tales of his voyage.

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A boy offers sliced pineapples by roadside fruit stand (Tupi, South Cotabato, Philippines)

Symbol of Hospitality

This tradition was later adopted by colonial innkeepers as a symbol of hospitality and added the pineapple to their signs and advertisements. Bedposts carved in the shape of a pineapple were a common sight at inns across New England.  The Spaniards also adopted this symbol and incorporated the pineapple design into their wood-works.  Pineapple designs became prominent on all types of furniture and the motif eventually migrated to various colonies in the West.

In those days, since pineapples were so rare in Europe, a pineapple’s role is first as a table decoration for affluent parties and then as a dessert. It is said that King Louis XIV of France, in his eagerness to try the pineapple, bit into the unpeeled fruit and cut his mouth on the sharp skin.  In the early 1700’s, La Cour, a French merchant, successfully grew a pineapple to maturity inside a glass house and thus made greenhouses the rage as a hobby and status symbol of the time.

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Pineapple plant and young fruit

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Cross-section of a pineapple and its crown

A Thousand Eyes

Philippine folklore tells of a spoiled child named Pina who lived alone with her mother but grew irresponsible as the mother took care of everything she needed.  When the mother eventually got sick and needed Pina’s help, Pina was too lazy to search with her own eyes and asked her mother for each item she needed just to prepare simple food. Out of exasperation, her mother wished that Pina grew a thousand eyes and, at that instant, Pina disappeared from the household. Later on, a strange, yellow fruit grew in the backyard. It was the shape of a child’s head and covered with a many eyes and the mother instantly knew that it was Pina. To honor her beloved daughter’s memory, she cultivated the spiny plant and gave out the sweet, juicy fruits to neighbours and visitors thus Pina, in the form of pinya – the fruit, eventually became friendly and generous to others.

Excellent Fruit

Pineapple (Ananas comosus)  belongs to the Bromeliaceae family, from which the enzyme bromelain — one of its most important health-promoting compounds, got its name. The root of the English name; pineapple, and its Spanish name – piña; both refer to the fruit’s visual similarity to the pinecone. The word “nanas” in its scientific name means “excellent fruit”.

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A roadside fruit stand displays rows of fresh pineapples (Tupi, South Cotabato, Philippines)

Pineapples have a wide cylindrical shape, a scaly green, brown or yellow skin and a regal crown of spiny, blue-green leaves. A pineapple is actually not just one fruit but a composite of many fruitlets fused together around a central core. Each fruitlet can be identified by an “eye,” the rough spiny marking on the pineapple’s surface. The fibrous flesh of pineapple is yellow in color and has a vibrant tropical flavor that balances the tastes of sweet and tart. The area closer to the base of the fruit has more sugar content and therefore a sweeter taste and more tender texture.  It is believed that the popularity of the pineapple is due to its sweet-sour taste.

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Fresh pineapples on display

Pineapple Sweets

Pineapple  can be consumed fresh, canned or juiced and can be used in a variety of ways. It is popularly used in desserts, salads (usually tropical fruit salads, but it can vary), jams, yogurts, ice creams, various candies, as a complement to meat dishes and in fruit cocktail. Cut fruit, if chilled, retains many of its nutrients for at least 6 days.

Raw pineapple is an excellent source of manganese which is important in energy production and antioxidant defences and vitamin C which is the body’s primary water-soluble antioxidant. The stem and core of the fruit contains bromelain, which breaks down protein thus some chefs use pineapple juice as a marinade and tenderizer for meat.

Serving Suggestions

The World’s Healthiest Foods suggests the following quick serving ideas for pineapple:

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A fruit vendor slices pineapples (Tupi, South Cotabato, Philippines)

  • Combine diced pineapple with chopped shrimp, grated ginger and a little olive oil. Season to taste and serve this fragrant shrimp salad on a bed of romaine lettuce.
  • Mix diced pineapple and chili peppers for an easy to prepare salsa that’s an exceptional complement to fish such as halibut, tuna and salmon.
  • Drizzle maple syrup on pineapple slices and broil until brown. Serve plain or with yogurt.
  • Chopped pineapple, grated fennel and cashews go well together and are especially delicious as a side dish to chicken.
  • Pineapple is a wonderful addition to fruit salads, especially those containing other tropical fruits such as papaya, kiwi and mango.
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Pineapple plant and an almost ripe fruit

Look for pineapples that are heavy for their size. While larger pineapples will have a greater proportion of edible flesh, there is usually no difference in quality between a small and large size pineapple. Pineapples should be free of soft spots, bruises and darkened “eyes,” all of which may indicate that the pineapple is past its prime. Pineapple stops ripening as soon as it is picked, so choose fruit with a fragrant sweet smell at the stem end. Avoid pineapple that smells musty, sour or fermented.  The fruit itself is quite perishable.  If it is stored at room temperature, it is best consumed within two days but its lifespan is extended to five to seven days if refrigerated.

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Pineapple field (Tupi, South Cotabato, Philippines)

Other Uses

Aside from its uses as a fruit; valuable textile fiber called piña is extracted from pineapple leaves in the Philippines.  This fiber is used in traditional Filipino clothing called barong Tagalog but is now being used as material for fashion wear and component for wall paper and home furnishings.

Pineapple Growers

Southeast Asia dominates world production of pineapples.  In 2001 Thailand produced 1.979 million tons and the Philippines 1.618 million tons, while in the Americas Brazil produced 1.43 million tons. The primary exporters of fresh pineapples in 2001 were Costa Rica, 322,000 tons; Côte d’Ivoire, 188,000 tons; and the Philippines, 135,000 tons.

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